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7 Setting Basics That Can Bring a Story to Life

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I love judging contests. I always appreciate the way reading entries forces me to evaluate the basics of good fiction writing. I come away from the experience working all the harder to apply the basics to my own stories.

I recently did a post about 7 dialog basics after noticing that some of the entrants were struggling to craft dialog. Since I seemed to be making a lot of comments in the entries regarding setting, I thought perhaps I’d do a refresher post on some setting basics as well.

Here are 7 basics that can help bring a setting to life:

1. Refer to the setting more than once.

Most writers will remember to ground readers in the setting at the beginning of the scene. We often give at least a brief description of where our characters are at. But then as the scene progresses our characters often end up acting on a blank stage.

We have to remember throughout the scene to continue to keep our setting details alive for our readers by making subtle references. If our hero is sitting on the beach, we need to briefly describe the beach in the first few sentences of the scene, but then as the scene unfolds we can refer to the sound of the waves, or the squawk of the sea gull, or the stench of the seaweed. We need to keep hinting at the setting details throughout the scene, NOT just in the opening lines.

2. Use bite-size details.

Don’t dump large chunks of description in one place. Readers' eyes will usually skim a paragraph that is mostly or all description. We don’t want a large paragraph to sound like we took it straight from the Sears catalog. Instead we're better off dishing out details in bite-sizes which are more palatable and digestible for modern readers.

3. Weave description through the point-of-view character.

We should never randomly describe anything within our books. And of course we can’t describe everything. Rather, we need to be strategic in what we pick. One way to decide what deserves space on the page is to ask this question: What would THIS particular character notice? What would he see through his worldview, personality, past experiences, etc.?

For example, my hero isn’t going to notice that the color of my heroine’s dress resembles buttercups (unless he’s a florist). If he pays attention to the color at all, he’ll call it yellow. Now the heroine might notice the color AND the lace at the hem AND the embroidered collar, because she’s a woman and her dear grandmother lovingly sewed the dress for her.

4. Use description to set the mood.

Another way to pick what to describe is to decide what mood you want for the scene. If the mood is spooky, then you might point out the rancid odor of the decaying fish among the tangles of slimy seaweed. If it’s a happy scene you might describe the way the sunshine makes the sand sparkle like diamonds.

5. Pick items to describe that are important to the plot.

When I read a detailed description about one particular item in a book, as a reader I like to think that item is significant, that somehow it will come into play later in the book. Otherwise why would the writer spend so much time describing it?

Sometimes, as a literary technique,we can focus the camera lens more closely on the setting or a particular item when it’s important to the plot for purposes of symbolism, foreshadowing, or strategy. But we need to be careful not to lead our readers on with descriptions that don't matter.

6. Use all five senses to bring the setting to life.

Most writers can paint a vivid picture with words and SHOW a scene through the EYES of their character. But it takes much more work to add in smells, sounds, tastes, and textures. And it’s even harder to work in those ancillary senses without saying something like, “The room smelled like burnt coffee.” Instead we should strive to eliminate the actual sensory words and instead say something like, “The bitterness of the burnt coffee was so strong in the air she could almost drink it.”

While we can’t always avoid using the actual sensory word, the experience becomes stronger when we carefully select specific words that can evoke our readers’ sensory memories.

7. Be as specific as possible.

We can add authenticity (especially historical writers) when we are as precise as possible with what we’re naming and describing within our settings. We can say, “The drunkard had a cup of beer” or we can say, “The drunkard swigged a tankard of ale.”

The more we can specifically name details—whether particular kind of car, flower, tree, book, etc—then the more the more vivid the story becomes in our readers’ minds.

What did I miss? What else do you think is important when describing settings? Which of the above points do you struggle with the most?

26 comments:

  1. Great article. We should all remember to do this more in our won writing. One of the things I strive for is how an article feels to the touch of a character.

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  2. Setting is something I really worked on in the rewrite of my books, and it seems it worked, as many of my beta readers commented on how real the scenes felt. Hooray! Thanks for this post, it's a great summary of all the top things to remember with setting.

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  3. I struggle most with smell. I think in part it's because I don't have a sensitive nose so something has to be particularly offensive, distinctive or powerful to really register with me. As such, I really struggle not just to weave smell into my writing but to be able to describe it well.

    The upside though is by the time my husband is repulsed by how stinky our seven month old is, I'm just registering that he could probably use a nappy change ;)

    How important do you think the macro setting is to the story Jodie? I tend to be okay at describing the setting a character finds themselves in at any given moment, but I had someone in a writing group recently tell me that the city itself needs to be like it's own character in the story. I'm a little uncertain - my reasoning being that I'm writing a contemporary romance, not an ode to Chicago!

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  4. Thanks Jody. These tips are extremely helpful! I'm going to print & save this post.

    Sometimes I feel bad when I skim a paragraph about scenery—like, what's wrong with me? do I have some sort of ADD that I can't even pay attention beyond a sentence? But I think that's b/c the more I read, the more I encounter excellent writing and authors who can put me into a scene with just a few well-chosen details, allowing my imagination to take it from there. Somehow, those seem to be the stories I remember more than ones with lots of descriptive paragraphs.

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  5. While judging a contest recently, this is something I commented on each entry. So many writers forget to use the characters' senses to enhance the setting. Your tips are a fantastic reference. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Hi Everyone! Thank you for sharing today! I appreciate each of your thoughts!

    Kara in answer to your question, I don't think macro setting is nearly important today as it was long ago when people relied on the descriptions in books to "see" the world. But today we have TV's, DVD's, Youtube, etc. to give us a picture of the world. We don't need long flowing paragraphs to bring something to life, since most of us already know what big cities or faraway places look like.

    So, no, I don't think setting needs to be as much as a "character" anymore. We can bring the setting life in much smaller, subtler ways by using well-placed words and sensory details. Our readers will thank us for not boring them with descriptions about stuff they likely already know.

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  7. My problem is putting too much detail into it, and not just the setting either. But it gets better whenever I proof-read and edit. These are really useful tips to think about, so thank you :)

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  8. This is very helpful. I always have trouble with under-describing...

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  9. This is very helpful. I always have trouble with under-describing...

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  10. I totally need this! Thank you so much, setting is not my strong-suit.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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  11. This is a GREAT list! Setting has always been a little weak for me, and I've been working on it. The key is like you said, to trickle it in small doses in the appropriate places. And to make every detail fit with the character's POV and emotions. I love that!

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  12. A perfect, concise list to tag away for future reference. Thanks, Jody!

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  13. Wow, excellent tips!! Thank you. I struggle with the pov thingy. My characters probably notice things they shouldn't sometimes. Ooops! lol

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  14. These are great reminders, Jody! Like Jessica, I tend to forget to see the setting through my character's eyes and end up describing them through mine. A recent critique pointed out if the male protagonist noticed the cabin had curtains at all, he likely wouldn't notice their colour. Oops!

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  15. Carol, I've had to beware of that too! As a historical writer, sometimes I do take liberty with my male character POV because sometimes there are things that have to be described no matter the POV. But even so, I try my best to "see" the scene thru the POV character.

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  16. Hi Jodi,

    Another valuable post - filled with very useful tips.

    Someone once suggested to me that setting details should point to the story’s conflicts and message, ideally with elements of foreshadow, personality and theme.

    When two potential lovers meet on a train, for example, the curtains are velvet and the sunset outside is red – both details which connect to the essence of an impending affair.

    I think you alluded to this with your 5th suggestion, although there was no suggestion so I wasn't sure.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

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  17. Hi Jody! Your posts are always such a blessing. I'm getting better at using the five senses and interpersing the details throughout the scene, but I trip over the sensory words, using the word "smelled" or "tasted" instead of bringing the experience to life. :-)

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  18. Describing settings is something I've always struggled with. I’m going to print out these tips and stick them on the wall above my laptop!

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  19. How timely! I'm starting to go through my draft and add in setting details. I need to sprinkle more small details through each chapter. Thanks for this.

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  20. Great tips for setting. In regards to having the correct POV perspective, I often read my male POV to my husband to check and see if a man would say, think and feel the way I've portrayed it.

    On a side note, I had my husband choose our sons names since I didn't know how it would feel to be a man walking through life with certain names. He chose Asher & Judah (the names of our twins) - because, according to my husband, those are great guy names!

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  21. Oh my heck. I'm going to pin this. You've done a better job advising my on setting than anyone at the half a dozen writers conferences I've been too. Thanks, Jody. :)

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  22. me, not my. Me excitement carried my away. ;)

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  23. Thanks for the very kind words about the post, Michelle! You're so sweet! And thanks for pinning it! :-)

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  24. I've been so busy for the past few weeks, I've missed some of your wonderful posts! Today I made sure I could swing by for your writing wisdom. Thank you for sharing it.

    Tip #1 is a good reminder for me - especially when I have multiple settings to juggle.

    I think it's important to also leave room for the reader to fill in some of the setting. I want them to experience their "vision" of the story/characters/setting/etc. It's a balance I'm working on! :)

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