The Art of Writing Great Settings
I. Crafting Sensory Settings
An evocative sense of setting gives another dimension to your story. Setting is not only where your story happens but when it happens. A well-portrayed setting of time and place lends a three-dimensional aspect to your story. The goal is to present a setting so well that not only can your characters believably inhabit it, but so too can your readers.
Well-crafted setting goes beyond being just backdrop – it can evoke mood, atmosphere and even conflict in your story. Setting can be real or imagined or any combination of the two, but no matter what, it dictates the parameters of where and what is possible in your story.
The writer’s first goal is to conjure up a setting that is not only a place to put your characters and their story but also a place to bring your readers, to transport them into the time and place of your story. When you produce a setting with a strong sense of time and place, it works in tandem with character and plot to provide a firm foundation for your story.
How to enhance and enliven the setting in your story:
II. Sensory Writing Makes Setting Come Alive
Every writer wants their reader to fully experience their story, and to do that you want your setting to be as vivid and evocative as possible.
The role of art is to make a world which can be inhabited.
When crafting setting remember that we live in a sensory world, and if you want your readers to engage with your setting, you need to engage their sensory perceptions. Think – and write – in terms of calling forth your setting by using as many of the senses as you can, include the seen, the heard, the smelled, the touched, the tasted. When you present these elements in your story, it helps the reader to engage and experience the world of your story. Strive for bringing your characters experience of your story setting off the page and into the reader’s mind so that you pull the reader’s mind into your story. Work on writing evocatively enough that the reader sees the story for themselves.
As George Orwell put it: “Good prose is like a window pane.”
You want to write your setting vividly enough that your reader will not only look into the window but open it up and walk through it.
III. USE SPECIFIC SENSORY DETAILS FOR STRONG SENSE OF SETTING
Good descriptive writing of setting, scenery, landscape and location give power to a sense of place and make it more inhabitable.
Writing setting is an opportunity to narrow your focus and to emphasize specific details, concrete images and experiences. Avoid the abstract and strive to write clearly and concretely about sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations. The more clear and specific the writer’s focus is, the more vibrant the setting will be for the reader.
I'm never interested in writing a kind of neutral, universal novel that could be set anywhere.
To me, the novel is a local thing.
You want the world of your setting to come alive through specific images and tangible objects. Most often the best way to do this is not to paint in broad strokes but rather to narrow your focus and make your setting stronger by being selective about what details and objects you use to craft your setting and thereby more strongly emphasize the most important details.
Don’t bore your readers by getting all the details about your setting in your story; strive to captivate them by writing the most essential, vivid and striking specifics into crafting your setting.
WRITING TIP: When struggling with making setting come alive, its helpful to think in terms of being a set designer for a play or a movie director. Think of what items you would place on your stage set to evoke the mood and atmosphere you’re striving for.
Picture them clearly so that you can write about them concretely.
If you were directing a movie of your book, what elements of action and setting would you focus on to vividly evoke the feeling you’re striving for in your story? You might get the overall context of the scene in your story by showing the big picture, but eventually you’ll want to zoom in on some specific details to leave a lasting impression in your reader.
IV. BRING YOUR CHARACTERS INTO YOUR SETTING, TURN YOUR SETTING INTO A CHARACTER
Well-crafted setting provides a stable – or unstable – foundation for the characters story and the unfolding of the plot. Some settings even influence and become a major component of the plot. Setting is more than just a backdrop, it shapes other characters and can dictate plot elements, making some actions impossible and others inevitable. Characters and their choices are largely shaped by how they are affected by the setting, the sense of time and place in a story. They react and feed off it, have emotional experience with it. They may love it or feel confined by it, but either way, how they interact with the setting contributes to how their story unfolds. Strong characters most often have strong opinions about their environment of time and place.
Setting is not only essential to good storytelling but can even become a character in its own right. A richly-woven setting can be imbued with its own character and personality traits, can be depicted with elements of emotions, moods or impacting events. Like characters, settings can undergo great change in a story. The more atmosphere and characteristics you give to your setting, the more depth and dimension you give to your story.
I sometimes think what I do as a writer is make a kind of coloring book,
where all the lines are there and then you put in the color.
Just as you spend time working on well-portrayed characters and plot, so you should also with setting. Setting can – and should be – much more than just physical location. It can be depicted in terms of atmosphere, personality, values, customs, cuisine and way of life. Well-written setting will help transport the reader to the world of your story and sense its unique spirit and personality.
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