Back to Basics: Setting

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Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, when a new idea strikes you for a novel, it’s likely there are three things you think about first: the what (plot), the who (characters), and the when and where (setting). Those story elements may not occur to you in that order—it’s possible for a location to inspire just as much as an idea or person—but for some reason, setting can be often relegated as the least important of the three. Don’t make that mistake.

Setting Is Crucial

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the #1 best-selling book in 2019: Delia Owen’s Where the Crawdads Sing. If you haven’t read this book, chances are you’ve heard of it. And if you’ve heard of it, there’s a good chance even if you don’t know about the plot, you’ve heard about the gorgeous, evocative setting in the South (more specifically, North Carolina). The novel garnered tremendous praise for how lushly drawn the setting is.

But this is true of many of books. Don’t know much about The Great Gatsby? You probably at least know it’s a novel set in the Roaring 20’s. What about Treasure Island, Dante’s Inferno, Anna Karenina? Even if the particulars of the plots don’t come to mind, I bet you remember the setting of those books. Setting has staying power, even when plot and character names have faded away.

Setting is transformative. It allows the reader to transcend their daily experience and go somewhere else, whether in time or location. A well-written setting can be just as important to making a novel compelling as a fantastic plot. So what are some ways we can take our settings to the next level?

Components of Settings

Regardless if you’re in the process of drafting or revision, it’s important to take some time out specifically to devote to setting. In general, there are several different components that you should work in. They include:

  • Physical location
  • Temperature, weather, time of day
  • Geographical/Topographical distinctions
  • Social customs and traditions
  • Historical time period
  • Sensory information (sights, sounds, smells, tactile descriptions)

But it’s not enough to just write a setting that includes these things. Even if you manage to get these important details into a scene, the way that you write them makes all the difference in the world. Point of view plays a big part here—setting details can easily slip out of POV and move into omniscient narration. It’s vital to make sure everything presented is coming from the POV of your protagonist.

But, even if you do that correctly, the setting details need to go deeper. For example you could write:

Martha squeezed into the room through the jammed doorway. She noted the yellow curtains, the faded paisley upholstery on the couch, and green ottoman in the corner. The old shag carpet looked like it hadn’t been changed in a long time. And the room stunk like cat pee. No wonder furniture was included on the rental. She’d pass on this one.

Does this work? We hit a lot of the important parts of setting. But it reads like a laundry list. Could we go further?

Aim for Immersion

A truly immersive setting won’t stop at just describing at what’s in front of the character. To make setting powerful, take the time to personalize it. Give it meaning to your character, let them process what they’re experiencing.

Let’s try that paragraph from above again, this time written in a more immersive style.

Martha wedged the door open with her shoulder. The hinges groaned and the stench of cat pee smacked her before she even stepped in. Yuck. Gagging, she crept in further, the soft crunch of a shag carpet under her feet. Who knows how long it’d been here. She shuddered, imagining what could be trapped in the fibers over the years. Yellow curtains, an awful paisley couch, and a hideous green ottoman—this was the furniture the landlord included? No thanks.

See the difference? Both versions remain in the character’s pov, but the second example goes deeper, giving us an opportunity to understand how the character reacts to what she encounters. With the second example, we also don’t need to tell the reader the doorway is jammed—we show it. We give them the experience of the age of the carpet through Martha’s reactions to it, rather than just calling it old. You can read more about show vs. tell here: What’s all the fuss about show vs. tell?

Immersion is the key to mastering setting. Helping your readers see, sense, and—most importantly—understand the impact of the setting through your characters is powerful and transformative. It will make the setting come alive, even long after a reader has closed the pages of your book.

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About Author

Annabelle McCormack is a writer and photographer from Baltimore, Maryland. When she's not busy writing, she's chasing around her four kids and enjoying life in the country. To follow her journey, check out @annabellemccormack on Instagram, where she posts regularly about her adventures.

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