April 10th, 2017

Stuck in a Rut: How to Amp Up a “Boring” Story Setting


Angela Ackerman

Taking the time to choose the right setting for each scene is one of the best ways to ensure our writing has impact. Why? Because the setting touches everything. It can characterize the story’s cast, evoke mood, generate conflict, shape the plot, and even use symbols and emotional triggers to show readers what the protagonist fears, yearns for, and needs most of all. Setting is a formidable tool to wield in fiction, so much so that Becca and I dedicated not one, but two books to showing writers how to use it more effectively.

When described well, a specific location will draw readers into the scene’s action and the mindset of the POV character at the same time. Our description should provide an experience, encouraging readers to emotionally invest. Thinking outside the box to pick a setting that is unique works great to achieve this, but sometimes genre or story logic narrows our options, forcing us to take a different route.

Some settings tend to get used more than others in fiction, such as forests, parks, restaurants, and bedrooms. Genre can influence this, like the high school hallways and locker rooms found in YA fiction. Or plot may demand a specific setting, which unfortunately happens to be a bit on the bland side. Either way, to avoid boring readers who have experienced these settings many times before, we have to work harder and keep interest levels high. Here are three techniques to help you make any setting, even a boring one, pop!

Customize the Familiar

If you are unable to use a setting that is fresh because of your plotline or the expectations of a genre, don’t worry, the setting can still be reinvented. For example, a static location like a high school hallway (dull, scuffed lockers, milling students, and shut classroom doors) will have a signature look if the school prizes creative expression. Eclectic wall murals, lockers painted a rainbow of colors by students, and posters asking for entries for an art show will each put a unique stamp on this setting. Or try another customization and imagine how the hallway will look if decorated for a holiday or a celebration specific to the school. What if a water pipe were to break, flooding the hall with water, or worse, sewage?

Even through routine this boring hallway can transform. Think of the last day of school when kids pack up personal items and escape, leaving the rest of their school DNA bleeding from half-open locker doors or crammed into overflowing trashcans. Bottom line: your imagination is what flavors a setting, so open your mind to the possibilities.

Play With Light and Shadow

Things look different at night. I don’t know about your bedroom, but in mine, the ceiling fan above my bed becomes a gangly netherworld creature ready to take me out at 2 am, and my digital clock morphs into a video camera display (thanks to reoccurring “being watched” type nightmares my brain likes to feature). Anyway, the point is, changing the quality of light can transform a setting and cause an emotional response. Because people view light and dark as symbols for “safe or not safe,” and “good or bad,” we can use this to our advantage. Darkness can warp even the most innocent location and bright light can make a dangerous place seem safe, lowering the character’s (and so reader’s) guard. So play with light and dark, thinking about how dingy windows, the time of day, spotty electricity, moonlight, or even the dying embers of a fire can steer your reader’s perceptions.

Use Weather Elements

Bringing the real world into our fiction gives it authenticity. Yet, many writers choose to walk on the bland side when it comes to weather: it’s sunny out, or there’s a breeze. Maybe some fog rolls in. This is usually because of the understandable worry that clichéd description might sneak into our writing (but this previous post can help with that concern).

There are many incredible types of weather elements that can be used, so don’t be afraid to explore something different as long as it works with the location. Weather is terrific at building mood, and because we are tactile creatures, people are very alert to temperature shifts and how the air feels on our skin. Weather also draws out emotions, making people feel a certain way, and can even add a nice bit of complication to the action as it unfolds.

Even with indoor locations, it is possible to bring weather in through the earthy scent of mud crusting one’s shoes, a snow-damp coat being hung to dry, or the persistent fingers of cold that reach up through the floorboards, sending your character closer to a space heater. Sensory details triggered by weather elements can bring about that realism our audience expects to see and will help customizes their experience.

What techniques do you use to make a bland setting unique and interesting? Let me know in the comments!

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 Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as four others bestselling writing guides. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. She loves connecting, so please say hello on twitter, facebook and instagram.

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