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Elements of Setting

Every story takes place somewhere.

Some take place in a variety of locations.

Overall, we’ve become somewhat twitchy about setting. I’ve seen so many people say they don’t really want to get into setting for fear of boring the reader. Others say they remember skimming through long paragraphs of setting detail. It’s true. Lengthy descriptions of setting can feel slow and gratuitous, but it is important we don’t throw away a potentially valuable, even essential, tool simply because we don’t much like it when it’s done poorly. So let’s talk about how to do setting well.

Going Beyond Vague Memories

The more setting matters to you, the more you can make it matter to your readers. But many of us rely on extremely vague memories or ideas for the setting choices we make and it results in very generic locations. Your story may be set in a school and we’ve mostly all been to schools. So we’ll pull out some generic details to cue in the reader that we’re in a school. But all schools are not created equal. Nor are all apartment buildings, houses, grocery stores, forests, front yards, school buses, or any other setting choice you might make. So the first thing you need to do is get to know your settings yourself so you can pick and choose more compelling, interesting, brief sensory details.

One way to do this is simply to make setting “sketches” a part of your life. Wherever you go, take a moment, pull out a notebook and pen, and write some details of the setting. Waiting for a doctor’s appointment?

– What do you see in the office?

– What do you hear?

– What do you smell?

– How does the chair you’re sitting in feel?

– What’s the temperature like?

– What entertainment is offered?

Creating these kinds of sensory sketches can afford you important memory notes to pull out the next time you need a scene set in such a place. And some of those cues can be used even when we’re creating something outside our experience. Say we have pages of setting notes on different doctor’s offices and you review them only to realize they all have things in common: color choices or size of rooms or kinds of entertainment. Then when you write a futuristic story with a scene in a doctor’s office, you’ll be able to ask yourself: which of those things would still be true of doctor’s office experience? Why? Why not?

I live not far from a submarine museum, which includes an actual submarine you can tour. Now, that lets me take great notes for anything I might write set on a submarine (which I never have used) but also suggests things for anything I might write that involves other inhospitable environments. Like space stations, for example, or space ships. And I have used the feeling of closeness from the submarine and the social awkwardness of the tight spaces when writing about space stations. I was able to call upon those details because of having made specific notes about them when I was there.

They say writers are always in research mode. I think that is true, especially of writers who are truly good at scene setting. We’re aware of scene all the time in real life and so we can translate that into scene in our work.

When You Know Too Much

Sometimes, it’s tempting to put all of your pre-writing work into your story. You developed a complex backstory for your character, so let’s put it all on the page. You learned all these important facts about how computers work, so let’s be sure to include all of them. You have these fantastic notes taken in an interesting children’s library, so let’s put all that on the page. It’s hard not to share the work you’ve done. I know it is for me. I’m proud of it and I’m interested in it. But I have to admit. I’m interested in a lot of weird stuff that would not interest my reader. So, now I have to decide: from the vast amount I know, what do I share?

With setting, that’s a bit easier to figure out what to use because there are certain guidelines you can follow. In setting, you will share those things your character interacts with or pays attention to. And your characters should interact with setting. We all interact with setting every day. As I write this, I am interacting with the setting of my office. I am tapping keys on my keyboard and I can hear the thumpy noise that the keyboard makes when I type quite fast. I don’t always pay attention to that sound, but I can hear it. When I pause to think though a sentence, I take a sip from my chipped Eeyore mug filled with warm tea. Though I am left-handed, I actually keep the Eeyore mug to the right of my keyboard so that I can grab it with my right hand. That keeps the chip from touching my mouth, because that feels funny and runs the risk of dribbling tea on my shirt. When I pause, I might also notice that my pencil sharpener and the top of my keyboard are in dire need of dusting––but in a story, I probably won’t put in the last bit. I don’t need to notice that to get the job done, but the Eeyore mug, the temperature of the milky tea and the tapping of the keys might all be part of my scene of writing this essay. So might the abundance of sticky notes all around my monitor since they’re constantly nagging me about all the other things I need to do. That might be part of my character.

So with setting, I’m asking: what will my character notice? What will my character interact with? Think of it a bit like staging a play. When you’re staging a play, you include all the furniture and props the characters need to interact with. You also keep in mind that action draws the eye. So you won’t put in too much stuff for the characters to fiddle with as that would distract from the story you’re portraying on stage.

Setting as a Tool for Characterization

There’s one more thing to keep in mind as you consider how to make your character interact with the setting. That interaction will become part of your characterization. For instance, say I stick two characters in the kitchen. One character is unpacking groceries as they talk. That choice shows the reader a couple things: that character is not considering the discussion to be important enough to give full attention. Now, maybe the second character joins in the putting away of groceries. This shows us the second character isn’t in a rush to make this discussion a full-attention moment either. Why? Are they anxious about bringing up some possibly unpopular topic? Are they simply waiting until they can give the topic full attention? How might those things affect our writing of setting?

An anxious character might fidget with the items as they are handed over to be put away. The anxious character might not put the items away correctly. And if not, how will the first character respond? Will the first character even notice? (Not noticing would tell us even more about how much value the first character is putting on this interaction) If the first character does notice, will that character be surprised by the mistakes? Annoyed? Every decision you make will build a layer on these characters and this is even before your scene gets to its real point in the dialogue. So setting offers you so much opportunity for characterization. Don’t throw all that away by tossing out setting as the dull parts you don’t really need.

Keep setting in mind as you write and as you revise. Are you using setting effectively? Is it a tool or an impediment for you? It can be an amazing tool. So I challenge you to spend some time getting to know this tool better. You’ll be glad you did.

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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

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