I’ve written tips about setting before, but there’s an important factor I haven’t discussed: how do you choose a setting? What kind of setting is right for your story? The right setting can truly bring a story to life and draw readers in, while the wrong one can make a scene feel dull or lifeless. So how do choose? Here are a few tips:
- Be evocative
Perhaps the most important element of a setting is whether it’s evocative and interesting to readers. A simple, ordinary room is likely to bore readers, while a particularly unusual or meaningful setting can captivate them. Famous fantasy settings are great examples of this—Hogwarts, Narnia, the Shire, etc. But your setting doesn’t have to be nearly so complex to be compelling, either. The smallest details can make a setting interesting—a foggy, moonlit street or a shady, quiet beach, for example, can be evocative too. Which brings me to my next tip…
- Be detailed
The key to choosing an evocative setting is to be detailed. If you’re not sure if a setting is working, or if you’re trying to choose between different settings, consider whether or not you can describe the setting in detail. Let’s look at the beach example above. “Shady” and “quiet” are both details that bring this particular setting to life. Instead of just saying “a beach,” provide details. Is it rocky or sandy? Shaded or bright? Is it an ocean beach or a lake? What color is the surface? What shape is the shoreline? Is it windy? Is it cloudy? Is it humid? Are there trees? What kind of trees? In what direction is the sun? Is it crowded or deserted? Are there seashells? Is there wildlife?
Of course, you don’t want to include all of those details, and you certainly don’t want to dump them all on the reader at once. But if you’re having trouble building a setting, try to brainstorm as many of these types of details as you can. Write them all down, even if they seem insignificant. Then choose the most interesting and important details and work them into your scenes.
If you’re having trouble deciding which details to include, here’s one of my favorite writing tips ever: describe what the reader won’t assume. For example, I see a lot of ocean beach settings described with phrases like “The waves crashed against the shore.” But that isn’t a particularly compelling description, because readers are going to be picturing that already. Unless you can do something really interesting with that detail—“The beat of the waves against the shore was the beat of her heart” or something—it would be more useful to pick a detail that readers won’t be able to guess on their own.
- Consider tone
One of the best ways to set the tone for a scene is through its setting. If you choose a setting that doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the scene, it’s going to feel off. Consider the other example I used earlier—a foggy, moonlit street. That image instantly feels mysterious, maybe even sinister. Whichever details you choose to add, in keeping with tip #2, make sure that they also fit the right tone for your scene.
This is also a great way to make a setting feel different throughout various scenes. If you have to use a setting over and over again, consider the tone that you want to strike in each moment and choose details to reflect that. For example, a cheerful scene might mention the bright sunlight streaming through a window, while a melancholy scene might mention the dust swirling in the sunbeam.
- Consider character
A great way to utilize setting is to consider your characters’ reactions to it. How does the setting influence your protagonist? What is their attitude toward it? Does it remind them of something or someone? This is a great way to show characterization and make your setting part of the story, so consider settings that will have some significance for your characters.
- Consider significance
One mistake I personally have made before is not using a significant setting for one of the most climactic scenes in a book. At first, I tried using a setting that the protagonist had never visited before. I was thinking about how that location worked well with the plot, but I didn’t consider how lacking in significance it was for both the characters and the reader. The more important a scene is to the book, the more significance its setting should have. This will make your scenes more powerful and more meaningful. I ended up revising that novel so that the scene took place in a location that had been very important earlier in the story, as well as being particularly unique and evocative, and it made a huge difference in the impact of the scene.
What do you think? How do you choose settings for your stories? Let me know in the comments!
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