by: Heather DiGiacomo
The Setting of your novel is one of the most important tools that a writer has. It’s the reader’s eyes and ears into the world that you are creating or writing about. Setting is one of the first things that lets a reader know just what kind of book they’re reading. Are you in a fantasy world with mystical creatures? Are you in a gritty city full of crime? Are you in a quiet town where not much happens? See, just asking questions like that can help shape what’s going on in your plot.
What if I don’t think my setting is important?
Setting is always important! It doesn’t matter if you’re describing Hogwarts or your town’s local high school. If we don’t know where your characters are, we can’t be a part of that world. Reading is like travelling. If you don’t take pictures, people will have no idea where you’ve been. If you don’t know your own setting, your characters (and readers) may end up getting lost.
Which sounds better?
- “She walked down the street in her hometown and looked at the old shops that were there.”
- “She walked past the old Crown movie theatre, recently reopened for business after serious renovations. Outside the quaint little tea shop with the chalkboard door she passed two girls from her high school who were laughing and sharing a pair of headphones, watching something that she didn’t catch. At the corner before crossing the street, she stumbled on the cracked and uneven sidewalk, cursing both herself for being clumsy and the city for not fixing it.”
With just a little bit of setting description, the same scene has so much more life in it. So you shouldn’t think your non important small town doesn’t need big words to fill it. Because if Stephen King can create small towns in Maine and make each of them distinct and interesting, you can build up one setting for your own novel. Your setting is important, even if you don’t think it is.
Writing Setting in 1st Person POV
Anything your character sees they can describe. It is up to the character to talk about the setting around them. If the character cannot see something outside of their vision, they can’t talk about it. If you want to describe what’s going on in another setting, move your character to that area.
An example would be something like “I pushed open the old porch door, wary of its rusty hinges that wanted to give out. Stepping out on the rickety old porch, I surveyed the tall grass around my house, looking for the sign of the noise. The cool autumn air blew the dead leaves littering my driveway up around my feet I kicked them away and heard the soft crunch of them breaking.” The setting is described by the narrator as they react with it instead of just having them make a list of things they see around them.
Writing Setting in 3rd Person POV
Many writers will try to write setting around their character instead of with them. You need to make sure your character notices the setting instead of just talking about it. Say your character is called Mary and she’s in a room with a floral coach. Tell the reader that Mary interacts with that floral couch by leaning against it, sitting on it, etc and not just that saying there is a couch in the room.
An example of this would be “He picked up the old picture frame sitting on his grandmother’s shelf. The glass was cracked, but he could still see his grandfather’s smiling face through it. Setting the photo back down, he crossed the small room to her old brick fireplace and stooped down to poke at the fire with the iron poker. The brick leading up to the chimney was sooty, and he made a mental note to clean it out for his grandmother.” Instead of just describing the things in the room, the unnamed narrator interacts with them, making them important.
Remember there are 5 narrative modes
You can combine these to your will in order to set the best setting you can! Switch it up with different combinations. Remember: dynamic and organic > static and inorganic
Exercise to try
In class this week, we did a really cool exercise JT Dutton called “Here is not There, or Setting as Character”. Cathy Day links to it on her blog here. If you’ve already done that exercise, try going to The Wilderness Downtown and typing in a random address. Take wherever it gives you and describe it as though you were telling someone who’s never been there what it looks like.
- Your setting is not like everyone else’s. Think of your reader as someone running into your world for the first time
- Think of how your characters see the world they’re in. How would they talk about it?
- Mix up the narrative dynamics in order to keep the setting interesting
What I learned:
Setting is an important and unique aspect to your novel. It’s almost like a character. Just like you don’t want to leave a character too ambiguous, you don’t want to leave your setting a blank, nondescript place. Expand your world and all the little details in it!