You might’ve heard that setting can be a character in your story. But did you know that setting can be as crucial to your story as your character? Location matters. Imagine if The Shining took place in a quaint bed and breakfast with an uplifting soundtrack? Or if the house Noah lovingly built for Allie in The Notebook turned out to be haunted like the mansion in The Haunting of Hill House?
The way you stage the setting in your story deepens the experience for both the character and the reader. Whether you’re being blatant or subtle, dropping heavy detail or sprinkling light clues, how you present a place tells readers how to feel about it.
We tend to form impressions of people the first time we meet them—whether we mean to or not. We do the same with places. The first time a new setting is introduced, the reader will form a lasting impression. That’s the image they’ll pull up on their mental movie screen every time that location makes an appearance. Let’s make sure they’re seeing what you want them to see and feeling what you want them to feel.
In BRING YOUR BOOK TO LIFE PART I, we talked about character descriptions. If you missed that post, you can find it here: Characters Are People Too.
THE SET UP
Readers can’t see what you don’t show. Give the most description the first time we visit a new place, or all the reader will see is a white room.
Example: The city of Runaway hit its peak in the late ’60s with a storefront combination city hall, sheriff’s office, pizza place, post office, and library—if library meant a couple hundred donated paperback romance novels.
Example: The sixties had birthed this office. Shaggy avocado carpet covered the floor. Old books with multicolored spines bulged from bowed shelves that lined two of the four walls floor to ceiling. The hulking bookcases gave the room an I’m-closing-in-on-you feel.
Consider pointing out what’s not there—or what’s missing that should be there—to help paint a strong picture.
Example: There were no couches or lounges. Just an ugly metal desk, a tall gray filing cabinet, and two retro command chairs that could have come off the set of the original Star Trek.
When you take us back to a place you’ve already introduced, give a small reminder that brings back your original description.
Example: I leaned against the hulking bookcase and glanced down at the stiff shag carpet wondering just how crunchy it would feel under my toes if I kicked off my shoes.
Sometimes you don’t need an actual physical description. Using common places that most people are familiar with gives an immediate picture.
Example: If Gwyn had to spend one more second pushing through the crowd at Macy’s, this would be her last ever black Friday.
It works the same way with phrases. And places can have personalities too.
Example: It didn’t help that I was alone in a house that was more “modern mausoleum” than “contemporary living.”
Paint the White Room
Don’t be mysterious in a scene opening and wait to let us know where your characters are. Part of writing a good visual is giving that visual up front. Unless your character doesn’t know where she is, we need to know.
Is your scene inside? Outside? In a car? In an office? A restaurant? A house? If you don’t tell us, we might catch on eventually, but we’ll be so busy trying to figure it out, we’ll miss what’s actually going on in the story. Plus, you’ve lost the opportunity to pull “setting” out of your writer’s toolbox and use it.
Example: Kim stretched her legs under the table, bumping her son’s foot with her sandal.
Jason glanced away, his lips pale and his face chalky. Not the best look for a ten-year-old and light years from his usual light-up-the-room smile.
The drone of conversation buzzed through the clinic’s congested coffee shop like annoying insects Kim wanted to swat away. Two nurses in cartoon scrubs waited for their early-morning caffeine fix while a guy in a suit held up the line ordering some complicated latte he should’ve gotten from Starbucks.
(Immediately we know Kim is sitting at a table with Jason in a busy coffee shop that’s also located in a medical setting, and not for a good reason.)
Example: Jason shivered even though the sun-warmed leather seat of Mom’s van burned his back. People walked across the parking lot and disappeared inside the clinic. But no one looked at him. Or Mom. Sort of like they were invisible.
(Immediately we know Jason is in Mom’s van in a clinic parking lot, and it’s probably mid-afternoon because the seat is warm.)
GET IN THE MOOD
Atmosphere is Everything
Example: The faint glow of the fireplace and a few table lamps cast the sunken living room in a mix of light and shadow. A brown sofa on a thick bearskin rug faced the hearth. Two overstuffed loveseats and a cherry coffee table completed the conversation area. Compared to the cutting chill of my current company, the chalet teased me with visions of books, blankets, and endless mugs of hot chocolate.
Make an Emotional Connection
How your character feels about a place deepens the physical description.
Example: Oak Cliff High: Preparatory Academy and Boarding School. Breeder of the best. Alma mater to the elite. Nanny for the neglected. And—thanks to some poor choices I’d made my first week here—my hell away from home freshman, sophomore, and now junior year.
The Words You Say
Word choice conveys mood. You’d describe a church differently during a funeral than you would a wedding. The flowers and music and the actions of the people entering the pews would be completely opposite. Use power words to increase tension. Use calming words to diffuse tension.
Don’t open with a Children of the Corn setting, then write a light-hearted comedy. If your story isn’t horror or a mystery or a thriller, don’t write a spooky setting just because it sounds good. You’ll set your reader up with expectations you don’t plan to fulfill.
KEEP IT REAL
Know Your Geography
Unless you’re writing a futuristic, alternate-reality, or fantasy novel, it won’t be sunny and eighty-five degrees in Wisconsin in January. And you won’t be climbing a mountain in downtown Dallas.
Research. Act like you’re planning a vacation. Look at pictures, visit the city’s tourist websites, read about the climate. Even if you invent your own setting, make sure it gels with the geography and climate.
The Right Reaction
Your characters should react to the setting the way you’ve described it, unless you give them a reason not to. A former SEAL who survives a plane crash in the jungle is going to see and handle his unexpected setting differently than a thirteen-year-old boy on his first flight alone.
How your character reacts to setting tells the reader how to react. If you want your reader to be upset, your character needs to be upset. But remember to show, not tell.
Example: I make it as far as the great room before flashbacks rev my heart and slow my steps, kicking me into a mental spin of my last night here with Mom.
Splintered picture frames. Shattered glass. Broken lamps. Books thrown everywhere. My sister in the corner, hands over her ears in makeshift armor against Mom’s irrational rant. David and his sway-the-jury voice trying to talk Mom down. Me, frozen in the fallout, my world blasted into so many fragments there was no chance in hell I was ever getting my old life back.
I blink, and everything’s back in place. Mom’s paint-spatter art hangs on the wall in brand new frames. The contemporary lamps have been replaced. Her self-help books line the bookshelves.
Spotlight What’s Important
If you want something to stand out to the reader, it needs to stand out to your character. Shine a light on what you want us to know is important. At the same time, don’t point out what’s not important. If you spotlight something, readers will expect you to do something with it.
Example: We reach the thick, iron gates of The Oasis a century before I’m ready, and Jess stares out the window. This place is a lot to take in with its estate-like stucco buildings, golf-course lawn, patches of giant oaks, and the fancy pond that’s trying and failing to impersonate a lake.
Her gaze moves toward the gates as if she’s searching for a sign that will tell her where we are. She won’t find one. “This is where your mom lives?”
“For the last thirteen weeks, three days.” I rub my fist against what feels like a pair of spurred cowboy boots two-stepping across my chest.
(I’ve put this place in the spotlight. Which is great if it’s crucial to the story. You expect it to be. But if it’s just a place in passing, do you see how I’ve set you up for disappointment?)
DON’T BLANK OUT THE BACKGROUND
The background provides the backdrop for your setting. Characters aren’t usually alone in public places. Don’t forget to show us what’s going on around your character. This is also where your characters senses come into play. Think about smells, sounds, and the way things feel.
Example: In some cruel kind of karma, a slow, steady stream trickled behind Claire’s grave. The late afternoon service had ended fifteen minutes earlier, but people were still filing out of the rows of folding chairs under the royal blue canopy behind us, murmuring to each other.
Example: Donuts lined the kitchen counter. The smell of powdered sugar swelled into a phantom pastry that stuck in my throat. Swallowing hard, I turned away and went back upstairs.
Example: A breeze blew through the perfectly manicured trees dotting the landscape and raised an army of goosebumps on my arms.
Readers will assume it’s daytime if you don’t paint a picture that shows it’s not. They’ll also assume you’re in present time. Point out a different time period. If your story is set in the past, future, or in an alternate world, this is where worldbuilding begins. Description is crucial. Especially in your opening.
WEAVE DESCRIPTION INTO YOUR SCENE
Instead of information dumping, try weaving your setting into the action.
Example: I pull my ’69 mustang along the curb behind David’s boring black sedan. That’s where I lock my gaze. Not on the iron gates to my right or the sprawling estate behind them that could be a fancy bed-and-breakfast—but isn’t.
NOT ENOUGH OR TOO MUCH?
Use pacing to decide how much setting description you need. If Maddy’s running through the woods to get away from a clown with a machete, we’d expect description that’s short and choppy. If she’s walking into a famous cathedral she’s always wanted to visit, we’d expect longer, more descriptive prose.
Finally, keep in mind The Big Picture. Think like a reader. We can’t see the beautiful images you’ve crafted in your mind—unless you show us. Look with fresh eyes at what you might be missing. Did you mean to set your characters in a forest but forgot to write in the trees? Ask your critique partners or your beta readers if they really feel like they’re standing next to your characters.
Have any other setting ideas? Please share in the comments.
An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She holds a BA in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and currently lives in the Dallas area. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head. You can find Where You Belong, as well as her young adult and contemporary romance, at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently up on the Radish app. Download the app for free.