Setting is one of my favorite things to write in a novel. It’s like being a set designer for a movie or play, and it can add so much to your character and the tone of the story. Here are a few tips on how to use setting well in your own stories.
Choose Locations Wisely
Writers often set scenes in the most convenient place, or the place they think of first, but choosing the best setting for a scene can help pull your reader in and give you more tools as a writer. Sometimes setting is dictated by the action of a scene. If your main character is a student and has a scene where they’re learning something in school, the scene pretty much needs to be in a classroom. But if your main character is having a conversation with their parents, that could happen in lots of places: at the dinner table, in the character’s bedroom, in the mall, at the farmer’s market, etc. Each one of these settings brings its own complications for the scene. We never want to make things too easy for our characters, so choose a setting that gives the type of complications your story needs. Like, say your character needs to urgently have a very private conversation with their parents. If you set it in a busy farmer’s market, it’ll be hard to keep their conversation private. At other times, your story’s tension might come from within the character and you just want to give them a little comfort, so you can choose a place they’d really like to be, like an ice cream shop. Who doesn’t like ice cream? On that point, locations can also help you show what your character is like. A shortcut to showing your character as a person could be setting a scene in, say, their bedroom because our personalities come through in the way we decorate.
Using setting to show characters leads me to giving details. You can’t show your character by just saying they’re in their bedroom. We get to know their character by what’s in their bedroom. If your character has vintage Star Trek posters on their wall, it signals something different from if they have My Little Pony decorations. But you don’t want to describe everything in your setting. Books are interactive: They require your words and your readers’ imagination to make them come to life. So make sure you’re leaving room for your readers’ imagination to fill in the gaps. You want to give just enough detail for your reader to get a clear image AND just the right details that feed the story. For example, if your setting is a classroom, the details you choose to include will show readers if it’s a new school or an old one. If it’s a new school, you might mention the shiny metal chairs and polished wood desktops. If it’s an old classroom, those desktops might be worn and dull, scratched up with messages from long-ago students. Choose the best details to include and sprinkle them into your setting to help your readers see your story.
Include All the Senses
What we see is the easiest thing to remember with setting, but your characters are people and they have four other senses. Including details about all the senses will make the setting more real to your readers. Let’s go back to the farmer’s market. Maybe your character smells the roses from the florist vendor. Maybe they meet a gardener and feel her rough hands when they shake. Maybe they can hear the sizzle of beef in a barbecue stall, then taste the vinegar in the sauce. You don’t need to use all the senses at once, like I’ve done here. Figure out which will help your scene the most and use those.
Don’t Forget the Weather
Weather is a great tool for adding tone to a story. You know how in movies, a character might be sitting alone in their house feeling dejected, and they’re looking out the window as rain pours down outside? That’s not because it just happened to be raining the day they shot the scene. The rain adds to the somber tone, making viewers feel the characters’ distress even more. Consider weather in your scenes, as well as time of day. If your scene is outdoors at night, what shape does the moon have? Is it full, giving off a lot of light, or just a slice, offering up lots of shadows? And, think about how the weather affects your characters and their clothes. If it’s hot and humid, they might be sweating and that could make them feel embarrassed. If it’s snowing, they’ll be cold. Use weather to your advantage in your scenes.
Setting is your friend in your writing. Have fun with it and it’ll make your scenes shine.
What are your favorite tips for writing settings?