Character and plot are critical in novel writing, but your story’s setting comes a close third. This detailed article shows you how to build it right.
A strong setting is almost like a character in its own right. It has heart and soul, different moods, an influence on the characters and the events.
What does that mean in practical terms? You need to construct your story’s setting in exactly the same way that you create the characters…
- Take the time to get to know the setting, ideally as well as you know your own neighborhood.
- Then when the time comes to write your novel, you can’t help but bring the setting to life on the page.
Let’s dive in…
Getting to Know Your Story’s Setting
Setting is the backdrop against which the characters act out the novel’s events. A story with a poorly-portrayed setting is like a play on a bare stage. You have character and plot (the important parts) but no sense of place.
And that ain’t engaging!
Setting matters, then. And that’s why the aim is to get to know it like you know your own hometown. It’s like Robert Louis Stevenson said…
That “real or imaginary” point is important. Your novel’s setting doesn’t have to be a real place. It could just as easily be fictional. And in some genres, like fantasy, a fictional location is pretty much essential.
If you’re unsure whether to go for a real setting or a fictional one (or a mix of the two), this extra article will set you on the right track. (I’ll see you back here when you’re done!)
Back to the matter at hand…
I said above that setting is almost like another character in your novel. When creating characters, you write profiles to get to know them. You list their physical characteristics, what clothes they wear, their hobbies, and so on.
With setting, you do a very similar thing.
Time invested in getting to know your story’s setting now, before you write a single word of your novel, will pay big dividends later. You’ll naturally evoke an atmospheric setting on the page, without even having to think about it.
How much work does fleshing out your story’s setting take?
It’s up to you. Some folks like to take copious notes and draw elaborate maps and diagrams. That’s fine. It’s also fine to do very little. It boils down to how well you already know your setting, and whether or not you’re a “planning” kind of person.
Just like with creating characters, though, the more spadework you do on the setting now, the better. It means you won’t have to break your creative flow when you eventually write the story.
A couple of important points before we dig into the details…
First, as you’ll discover below, “setting” comprises so much more than just streets and houses. It also includes elements like the weather, local customs and what your characters do for a living.
The more multi-dimensional you make your setting, the more atmospheric it will be for your readers.
Second, getting to know your setting is about quality of details, not quantity. There’s no need to waste your time drawing up page after page of highly-detailed notes. Instead, look for those “killer details” that tell you everything you need to know.
For example, if the main character’s house has an old oak tree out front, don’t waste your time taking copious notes on the shape of the branches and the color of the leaves in autumn. Details like that could apply to any oak tree. Instead, look for details like these…
- The bark at the base of the tree looks like an evil witch’s face.
- The oak contains an abandoned tree house that the local kids say is haunted by the ghost of a boy who died when he fell to the ground.
Better, right? More atmospheric. Much more likely to make your readers sit up and take notice when you describe the tree.
Or say you’re describing the main character’s kitchen. You don’t need to write the kind of description you’d get from a real estate agent. Just give readers a small handful of well-chosen details…
- The bin is overflowing with paper plates and plastic cutlery.
- The fridge contains absolutely nothing that is green.
- There’s a disassembled lawnmower engine laid out on the kitchen table.
… and they’ll be able to fill in the rest of the picture for themselves. Even if a reader’s picture is slightly different from the writer’s, it doesn’t matter. What really counts in setting is the atmosphere, the mood that a place creates, not a precise inventory of every last detail.
Bottom line? I’m about to run through the various elements of a story’s setting. As you consider each one, don’t start mindlessly taking pages and pages of notes. Instead, look for a small handful of telling details.
Once you know those, the rest of the setting will pretty much build itself – both in your imagination and the minds of your readers.
The Eight Elements of a Novel’s Setting
1. The Main Location of the Story
In most cases, this will be the city or town or suburb – real or fictional – in which the novel’s events play out.
But stories don’t have to take place in traditional “communities” (the kind we all live in). In a seafaring novel, for example, the main location will be the ship. In others, it might be a desert, an airplane or a space station.
Don’t worry about the specifics yet (we’ll get to those lower down). For now, just make a few notes on the overall impression that you your main location leaves. Imagine that you’re trying to describe your setting to someone who’s never been there…
- How can you sum it up in a few brief sentences so that they feel like they know it?
- What feelings or emotions do you want this overall impression to trigger?
- What image do you want the person to picture in their mind’s eye?
If you need to, go ahead and flesh out your central community in far more detail. For a fictional setting, for example, you’ll probably need to sketch a map to help get the overall geography clear in your mind.
If you can picture it perfectly well already, including that all-important overall impression, move on to…
2. The Wider Geography
Think about what’s beyond your central location. When characters look out of their windows, do they see snowy mountain tops or smoke stacks? Where do they head to on a day out? What else is nearby?
These things can make a huge difference to the story. A small town surrounded by lakes and forests, for example, will have a very different atmosphere to one surrounded by heavy industry. A story set aboard a ship in the North Atlantic will be entirely different to one set in the South Pacific.
Whatever it is that surrounds your central location or community, it will act as more than just a pretty (or an ugly) backdrop.
The characters will travel there, or at least find that it affects them in some way. So be sure to make the wider geography “fit” the story you want to tell. For example…
- If a young boy goes missing in your novel, do you want the other characters to search for him in a spooky forest? On a barren moorland? In the bad part of the city?
- If a character drowns in a swimming accident, does it happen in a river, a lake or the sea?
Have you chosen a fictional setting – an imaginary small town in America, say? It’s a good idea to place it in a real state near a real town (or a real river, real mountain, whatever). Doing that will make your fictional community more believable.
Again, there’s no need to take reams of notes here, not if you don’t want to. It’s all about bringing your story’s setting to life in your imagination… so that you can then write about it with authority.
3. Key Locations in the Novel
Next, zoom in on the principal locations within the overall setting. List all the places where the majority of the scenes in the story take place – the central character’s house, their place of work, the bar they like to visit, and so on.
Bear in mind that these places must somehow “fit” with the character. A man who lives in an apartment with peeling wallpaper and who drinks in the seediest bar in town will be very different from one who lives in a penthouse and drinks in a fancy cocktail lounge.
Also remember to make these locations as interesting and as unusual as you can. Find that single detail which sets somewhere apart from all the other places like it.
If a character works in a downtown record store, for example, say that it used to be a greengrocer’s and the records are all stored in old vegetable crates. Something quirky and distinctive like that.
Sometimes, these “key locations” will select themselves. If you set your novel in a newspaper office, for example, that’s your key location right there.
Where you have a greater number of locations, with no one being especially more important than the others, try hard to make each one distinctive and memorable. It stops them all blending into each other.
So if you set your story in an apartment block, for example, in which three of the apartments are key locations…
- Give one a stylish art deco interior.
- Make another smell permanently of marijuana.
- Give the third a dog that yaps all day and night.
Much more interesting than using three apartments that you can’t tell apart, right? Just make sure that each one matches its owner.
4. Activities and Occupations of the Characters
Those things may seem like odd categories for a story’s setting, but they absolutely help to give your novel a sense of place.
Your main character may be a lawyer or a farmer or a detective. The details of how these jobs are performed are as much a part of the “setting” as the physical office or farm or police station in which the characters work.
Describing the physical characteristics of a farm – the land, the buildings, and so on – is just one aspect of its setting. Talking about how to fix a broken tractor or how to harvest pumpkins adds an extra, and perhaps a more interesting, dimension.
And activities and occupations, of course, also apply to what characters do for a hobby: restoring classic cars, breeding tropical fish, solving cryptic crosswords, and so on.
These things may or may not have a bearing on the plot. But they certainly help to form an interesting backdrop against which the events take place.
Here’s an important question to ask…
Whatever activity lies at your novel’s core (banking, pig farming, running a Chinese restaurant), do you know enough about it to write with authority?
“Knowing enough” doesn’t mean that you have to be an expert. You don’t need to be a world authority on playing poker, for example, to write a good story based around the game. But you do need to be fluent with the fundamentals and have enough “insider knowledge” to interest the casual reader.
If someone really wants to find out about poker, they’ll read a non-fiction guide to the game, not your novel. In other words, your aim isn’t to educate your readers (do that and you run the risk of boring them). You just need to provide enough detail – an interesting fact here, the correct terminology there – to make the poker-playing scenes believable.
5. The Natural World
Most novels make some mention of nature, if only to describe the leaves falling off the trees or the sound of bird song.
The more rural the setting, the more you’ll need to mention the natural world to add realism to the story. But even big cities have cats and foxes and trees and spiders.
Authenticity is important. The animal sounds you hear at night in Montana are very different from the ones you hear in New York. So wherever you set your novel, take the time to do some research and get your facts straight.
The weather is part of nature, too. And it’s vital in helping to create an atmospheric setting. A scene that takes place at midday during a heat wave will be very different from the same scene set at midnight with a snow storm blowing in.
This isn’t the time and place to work out the precise weather conditions in every scene (you can do that when you come to write each one). But it is the time to do some research if you’re unfamiliar with the weather patterns in your chosen location.
For example, if it’s June in your novel and June is the rainy season, you need to make it rain – or else talk about how the rains are late this year.
(Want to learn more about writing about the weather – why it’s important and how to do it? I wrote this extra article just for you!)
What if the natural world isn’t your thing?
Still try to mention it occasionally (because your novel will be missing something if you don’t). But don’t sweat the details…
Make your main character someone who, like you, isn’t that interested in nature. That way, when you do mention it, you can talk in general terms…
The damn birds woke Joe up at six o’clock again.
… rather than naming specific varieties of birds (which the character wouldn’t know anyway).
6. Local Customs, History & Folklore
Fairs, carnivals and other local events are another great way of adding an dimension to your story’s setting. The local cuisine can be interesting, too, as can the way a town treats strangers, or how it celebrates New Year.
In short, any custom or event that is unique to the part of the world in which your story is set is like gold dust to you. And, no, it doesn’t have to be real…
Want to add spice to your novel? Invent a local custom!
7. The Story’s Historical Period
This won’t apply to you if your story is contemporary. If it’s set in the past – anything from a few decades to many centuries ago – you’ll have a whole extra element of setting to get right.
Fans of historical fiction tend to be fans of history, too (duh!). So it’s important to get your historical facts straight.
If your main character uses a pocket calculator when they haven’t been invented yet, or eat a brand of chocolate bar that wasn’t around at the time, your readers will notice. And that will kick a big dent in your authority.
The flip side is that readers will love you if you successfully bring a particular period of history to life in an accurate and atmospheric way. So investing a few extra days or weeks in historical research will be time well spent!
This final element of a story’s setting applies to everything I’ve talked about so far. It’s simply a way of giving certain aspects of the setting a kind of “X-factor.”
Take the central character’s car, for example (yes, cars are a part of the setting as well)…
Describing it as a 1954 Cadillac with a dent in the hood is a good start. But it remains an inanimate object. Saying that the car wanders all over the road at will, and that its owner has to wrestle with the wheel to keep it on course, begins to humanize the car.
Or make the car a kind of “best friend” to the character. Say that he likes to sit in the car at times of stress because it’s the only place in the world he feels at peace. And unlike all the other characters, his car listens to him but never answers back!
It’s little “soul-giving” touches like this that can take a boring element of setting and turn it into something unique and alive.
Describing a town’s main street in loving detail will give your story atmosphere and authenticity. But if you also mention that the street is haunted by the ghost of an eight-year-old girl who was killed by a reversing cement truck 50 years ago to the day – that adds some serious soul to your story!
A Quick Word on World Building
For most novels, the elements of setting I’ve outlined above are sufficient. But if you write fantasy fiction or science fiction, you’ll need to build an entire world from scratch. And doing that is clearly a much bigger and more specialized job than building a setting for, say, a contemporary romance.
To help you with “world building” (if fantasy or science fiction is your thing), I’ve tracked down this excellent resource from Stephanie Cottrell Bryant.
Falling in Love with Your Novel’s Setting
If you raced through the points above, believing that setting isn’t that important in your novel, think again.
A novel about an expedition to the South Pole might, on the face of it, require a far stronger sense of place than a novel set in an office. Written well, however, the office novel can have just as strong an atmosphere as the novel set in the wilds of Antarctica.
But only if the writer gets excited about the office setting.
Ultimately, a well-portrayed setting comes from the writer’s soul. Everybody has places that truly inspire them, that make them feel more alive.
For me, that place is Cornwall in the far south-west of England. I love the remoteness, the gentler pace of life, the smell of the soil on wet days and the eye-blue skies in summer. (I could go on indefinitely but I don’t want to bore you.)
That’s why I’ve set my fiction-in-progress there. Since my earliest memories of childhood holidays in Cornwall, the place has seeped its way into my bones. Unconsciously, that allows me to write about the place with passion. And doing that helps the readers to feel the setting in their bones, too.
If I set my fiction in London, I wouldn’t be able to pass on the magic of that city to the readers. Why not? Because in all honesty, I don’t feel it myself.
And you can’t fake it.
Whenever I visit London (or any city), I can’t wait to get out. Too many people moving too fast, too much traffic and noise. I hate those things. And it’s because cities don’t inspire me one little bit that I’m not in a position to inspire readers when I write about them.
I’ll leave that to the city-loving writers.
Of course, it would be fine to set a novel in London if I wanted the novel’s protagonist (and the readers) to share my sense of noise and dirt and the crazy pace of life. But if I wanted the main character and the readers to find London vibrant and alive, I’d have to fake it.
And that doesn’t work.
Remember, too, that setting is a lot more than just the streets and buildings. You need to be inspired by every aspect of your setting if you want to inspire the readers of your novel. For example…
- If the cut and thrust of a courtroom battle truly excites you, you’ll be able to pass that excitement onto your readers.
- If courtrooms terrify you, your readers will share in that terror.
- But if you have no strong feeling about courtrooms and court cases one way or the other, either get passionate or don’t write a courtroom drama.
If you don’t feel strongly about the setting you write about, the setting will be as flat as a painted backdrop.
- So if classic cars aren’t your thing, don’t give your hero an E-Type Jaguar to drive. Give them a car that excites you – one with all the latest gizmos to play with, perhaps.
- If you love fly fishing or football or sky diving, make one of those things your protagonist’s love. Or if you hate them with a passion, make the protagonist hate them, too.
Either way, you’ll be able to pass on that positive or negative passion, through your character, to the readers.
To illustrate the kind of passion it takes to create an atmospheric setting, here’s a brief extract from Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth.
The story takes place in a small New England community called Jenkintown. I don’t know that part of the world, so I don’t know for sure that the following description is authentic. All I know is that Hoffman is passionate about her setting (and must therefore be knowledgeable about it), because you cannot fake a paragraph like this…
Tonight, the hay in the fields is already brittle with frost, especially to the west of Fox Hill, where the pastures shine like stars. In October, darkness begins to settle by four-thirty and although the leaves have turned scarlet and gold, in the dark everything is a shadow of itself, gray with a purple edge. At this time of year, these woods are best avoided, or so the local boys say. Even the bravest among them wouldn’t dare stray from the High Road after soccer practice at Firemen’s Field, and those who are old enough to stand beside the murky waters of Olive Tree Lake and pry kisses from their girlfriends still walk home quickly. If the truth be told, some of them run.
Big Caveat on Settings…
Falling in love with your story’s setting is important, but it comes with a danger: Allowing the setting to overwhelm the story.
If you spend days and weeks researching a rich and atmospheric location for your novel, it’s only natural to want to work as much of it into the story as possible.
Don’t do it.
Readers are drawn to stories to discover who does what to whom. The setting should always be positioned behind the characters and the events. It should add atmosphere and context, yes, but never get in the way of the action.
Let’s say you’re writing a novel about an artist…
Describing the different types of paints or how to clean brushes is important (details like that add authenticity to the story). But always keep the details in the background…
- A little snippet here and there, in between the action and dialogue, is good.
- A three-page essay on how to prepare a canvas, with the characterization and events put on hold while you write it, will make your novel sound more like non-fiction.
Take the time to get to know your setting well. But don’t try to cram every last detail into the story itself. Hemingway, as ever, put it well…
I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know, you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.
That’s a fancy way of saying that you need to…
- Do your research.
- Keep most of the research out of the story itself (because you’re writing fiction, and detail for the sake of it is boring). But…
- Only leave stuff out because it doesn’t add anything to the story, not because you don’t know it or didn’t research it.
Bringing Your Story’s Setting to Life
Bringing your setting to life on the printed page is largely about skilful descriptive writing. This isn’t the time or place to cover descriptive writing (click the link for that). Instead, I want to talk about a couple of things you need to keep in mind when you’re writing or editing…
1. Reveal Setting in the Right Order
More specifically, always work from the general to the specific when describing a setting.
If you’re describing a house, for example, begin with an overall impression of the building (the “general”), just like the reader is seeing it from afar. Then move in closer and describe those specifics that were not visible from a distance.
Yup, writers describing settings with words is very similar to how film directors set the scene in a movie…
- A scene often begins with a wide-angled shot (the “establishing shot”) showing the town or the house or whatever from afar.
- Then the camera zooms-in on the scene, or else cuts straight to the close-up view.
First you get the context. Then the specifics.
Another good principle is to move from the concrete to the abstract.
The “concrete” means those tangible elements of a setting, things you can see and touch. Bricks and mortar, wooden doors, stone steps.
“Abstract” includes things like a chill in the air, an unpleasant smell, a sound the character can’t quite place – things which are more to do with a setting’s atmosphere than its architecture.
2. Remember to Give Setting “Reminders” Throughout the Novel
The first time you describe a particular location, paint the full picture for the reader. I don’t mean that you have to write pages and pages of description. In fact, you shouldn’t. Simply give the reader enough detail to be able to picture it fully in his or her mind.
The next time a scene takes place in this location, there’s no need to describe it all over again. Just select a couple of telling details from that initial description and present them to the reader again.
If you describe a creepy Gothic mansion in the opening chapter, for example, “remind” them of that description when you return to the mansion in Chapter 4…
So if you mentioned the gargoyles and the crooked chimneys in the original description, mentioning those two things again will remind the readers of all the other details you described (but that you’re not now repeating).
Once you’ve triggered people’s memories in this way, you can build upon the picture by mentioning new details – the cobwebs covering the letter box, perhaps, or the cold touch of the door handle, even though it’s a sweltering day.
A well-described, multi-dimensional setting is important in a novel. The way you achieve it is by…
- Understanding that setting encompasses far more than mere bricks and mortar.
- Taking the time to get to know your setting before you start to write. (But not too much time. Concentrate on those unique, telling details that truly set something apart.)
- Using your powers of descriptive writing – and sensual writing in particular – to bring the setting to life for your readers.
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