Setting is an element of fiction that many aspiring novelists overlook. This is especially true if their setting is a modern day city or town rather than an elaborate science fiction creation. But the setting is actually a vital part of the story no matter what sort of novel you’re writing. It can do everything from build atmosphere to create conflicts.
If you haven’t put any time or thought into your setting, you’re missing out on a major element of your novel.
The Setting Should Feel Purposeful
Wherever your novel is set, there needs to be a reason it’s set there. It should feel important (vital even) to the plot of the novel.
Why set a novel in the arctic if cold weather never affects the plot? Why set your YA in a high school if the conflict is irrelevant to the character’s school? And why set your novel in a bland/blank city when there are so many more interesting possibilities?
The sections below will help get you thinking about why you might choose a particular setting and/or how you can best utilize the setting you’ve already got.
Use the Setting to Create Conflict
Setting is so much more than just a location, it can cause or intensify all sorts of conflicts. Remember that “man vs. nature” thing you learned about in high school? Nature can be quite a compelling antagonistic force.
Floods, tornadoes, tidal waves, thunder storms, earthquakes, drought, thorn bushes, quicksand, raging rivers, poison berries, wild animals, freezing conditions – the setting can really kick the bajeezus out of your characters.
When inventing challenges for your characters to overcome, don’t overlook those that come from the natural world around them.
Use the Setting to Reflect or Intensify Internal Conflict
One way to make setting feel purposeful and integrated into the story is to use it to reflect or intensify the character’s internal emotional state.
If your character is thrown into a frightening situation with a bunch of characters she doesn’t know, you can amp up the volume by stuffing them into close quarters, like an underground bunker. The cramped space forces them to be in close contact and prevents the protagonist from being able to get away.
If your character has been forced to leave the comforts of home for the first time, sticking him in a dilapidated old house full of bugs and bats (okay, I kind of have a bat thing right now because of the bat that was in my office), will emphasis how unpleasant it is to be away from home.
Even something as simple as the claustrophobia created by a heavy snow storm or long winter can help amplify the character’s internal conflict.
Use the Setting to Say Something About Your Characters
Where the characters live and the places they visit can provide the reader with a strong impression of who they. For example, a character whose house is filthy will be very different from a character whose house is so clean you can eat off the floor. Likewise, a character who lives in an upscale neighborhood is going to be very different from the one who lives in a crummy apartment.
The setting can say a lot about your character’s lifestyle without you having to lift a finger. See, setting can even save you from too much telling!
Describe the Setting with Purpose
Anytime you describe the setting, it needs to be with a purpose. Sometimes writers feel that long descriptions of the setting are a requirement, but this is far from the truth. Long irrelevant descriptions (of anything) will slow your novel down!
Describe the setting with purpose. Whenever you include a description, think critically about why you’re including it – what is it conveying about the character? Why is the information important?
Don’t describe the layout of a city just because you can see it in your mind. And don’t spend a page describing the weather if your character never goes outside. Be strategic.
Engage the Five Senses
Creating an environment that is rich and interesting requires that you engage the reader’s senses. It’s easy to stop at what the setting looks like, but what about what it smells like? Do the city streets smell like wild flowers from the urban gardens or like the sewage the neighbors are throwing in the street?
What about sounds? Is the countryside silent or loud with wild animals and insects? Do the dry reeds crackle in the breeze? Can the sound of waves be heard crashing in the distance?
And don’t forget the little tactile details. Are the handrails smooth chrome or gritty and rusted? Is there gum stuck under them? And what about inside the house, does sand blow under the doors? Is it so humid that the walls sweat and the furniture feels damp? What does it feel like to live in this world?
Homework: Strengthening Your Setting
Here are some questions and activities to give your setting the push it needs:
- Did you choose your novel’s setting for a reason? If not, brainstorm ways that your setting could create or enhance the conflict of your novel and/or tie in with your character’s internal conflict OR brainstorm an alternative setting that creates more depth for your novel.
- If you’re happy with your current setting, brainstorm new ways the setting can affect the events of the novel. These don’t have to be big. They can be tiny moments that add richness to the story.
- Write an essay about your setting and how it appeals (or doesn’t appeal) to each of the five senses. You could easily write an essay on each sense if you really let your imagination run wild.
These activities will help you enrich your setting so that it becomes a memorable and significant part of your novel.
Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants
Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!
I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!
What is Novel Boot Camp?
Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.
4 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #14: Strengthening the Setting”
This is really great advice.There are some things here I hadn’t really thought about. I’m definitely going to spend more time on the setting and use these tips. While reading this, I thought about the Sookie Stackhouse books and how Bon Temps, Louisiana is a character in itself. I can’t even imagine the stories taking place anywhere else.
I’m always amazed by authors who can develop a setting with so many details and nuances that the author has created all on his/her own. It’s most prevalent in the Fantasy genre, but even in fiction, if the setting is done well, there was lots of research done to create a convincing setting.
This is where I need to work on most.
My problem with setting is that I do not plan ahead. I have my plot outlined and ready to go, but when it comes to setting, I am a ‘pantser’. Thanks for the tips.
I like the way that you’ve challenged us to use setting to show (or amplify) the protagonist’s characteristics without having to ‘tell’.