After character, plot and theme, setting is arguably one of the most important elements of a novel. ‘Setting’ refers to the location for which events occur, and can be used to:
Use the 5 senses to Immerse Readers
The most effective settings are those that plunge readers into a story’s world. By vividly portraying a setting’s sensory experience, readers’ imaginations will flourish, allowing them to feel like they’re inhabiting your story.
When using the 5 senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell), focus on touch, taste and smell. Too often, writers over-focus on sight and sound. This can come from trying to write as if your book was a movie, which has a strong reliance on these two senses. Using ‘uncommon’ senses like touch, taste and smell will help make your setting descriptions more original. Compare:
‘Dirty trash was scattered over the alley’
‘The stench of week-old pizza wafted down the alley.’
The first description is unimaginative. Because it relies on sight, it almost feels like the author is describing a photograph.
The second description, by contrast, uses smell to immerse readers into the scene, and makes it feel like this alley is real.
2. Avoid Clichés
No one likes clichés. Just like it’s important to avoid clichéd characters and phrases, it’s important to avoid clichéd settings. Peaceful villages, volcano-based evil villan HQs and generic modern cities are common setting clichés. While not necessarily bad, these settings have been used and abused to the point that they lack originality.
Instead of relying on clichéd settings, ask yourself how you can improve their originality. For instance:
- The Peaceful Village is only peaceful because the residents all secretly become demons at night.
- The evil villan’s HQ is in his parent’s basement.
- The city is dark, gritty and foreboding – an oppressive character in its own right.
The aim of a good setting description is to immerse readers into your story. Using clichés disrupts this goal, because if readers recognise clichéd phrases they’ll remember that your story is just that – a story. This will disrupt their suspension of disbelief, pulling them out of your story’s world.
3. Use Setting to Create Conflict
Setting is a great tool to provide conflict and tension. It can throw characters together, deprive them of security, or threaten their life. For example, Castaway’s primary antagonist is the setting, with the main character having to survive on a deserted island.
4. Treat Setting as a Character
When we create a character, we automatically devote time to developing interesting relationships between this character and other characters. However, authors often forget to consider relationships between characters and settings.
If you instead consider setting as another character, you’ll create chances to craft meaningful character-setting relationships. For example, character X might long to escape an oppressive city, with its dark streets and towering skyscrapers. However, character Y (X’s romantic partner) might love the cosmopolitan nature of the city – particularly since they make lots of money working in those skyscrapers. By treating setting as a character other characters relate to, we’ve created a triangular relationship between the setting, character X and character Y. This will lead to lots of conflict and other interesting story opportunities.
5. Don’t Overdo Setting Descriptions
Modern readers (myself included) hate overlong setting descriptions. You know the type: 2-page monologues which describe each drop of dew and the precise shade of paint on the walls, maybe chucking in some extensive family history as well.
Instead of page-long monologues, condense your setting description into a 1-3 sentence snippet. This forces you to only impart crucial details – maybe you only have space for a single, highly vivid image. If your setting is so complicated that it can’t be summed up in under 3 sentences, you might want to consider if readers will have the patience, time and brainpower to understand it.
If you really do need to go into extra detail, though, consider drip-feeding this detail throughout a scene or a story, rather than info-dumping it all at once.
What are your thoughts on setting? Do you have any special approach to writing scene descriptions? What’s your favourite fictional setting? I’d love to hear your thoughts!