As we all know, in writing there are so many different elements to juggle: characters, plot, pacing, description, voice, dialogue…and that’s just the start. It’s not uncommon for a few storytelling elements to be shoved to the back of the stage as we write, but today I want to talk about one that really shouldn’t be: the setting.
The settings in our story are so much more powerful than many authors realize. Each one doesn’t just provide a time and place for characters to “do what they do.” Used correctly, the setting can characterize the story’s cast, steer the plot, evoke emotions and mood, create windows to allow for active backstory sharing, provide conflict and challenges, and act as a mirror for what the protagonist needs most, reinforcing his motivation at every step.
The setting, when it comes down to it, is storytelling magic. What other element can do so much to enhance a story? For my Friday Five, I’d like to look at the mistakes writers sometimes make when it comes to the setting, so we can all step it up and fully utilize this incredible tool in our fiction toolbox!
1) Treating The Setting Like Stage Dressing
Each setting holds great power, deepening the action as it unfolds and characterizing the story’s cast during the scene. If we only use a few words to summarize the location, it can really impact the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and what’s happening. Vivid, concrete details not only help readers feel like they’re right there, planting specific description and symbolism within the setting also adds layers to the story itself.
2) Focusing On Only One Sense
Another common struggle for writers is choosing to describe through a single sense, specifically sight. While we rely heavily on this sense in real life, our world is multisensory, and our job as writers is to make our fictional landscape as rich and realistic as the real thing. We want to make each scene come alive for readers so they feel like they are right there next to the protagonist, experiencing the moment as he or she does. This means including sounds which add realism, smells which trigger the reader’s emotional memories and help create “shared experiences,” tastes that allow for unique exploration, and textures that will shed light on what’s important to the character through their emotional state. Textures are especially critical to include as a point of view character must directly interact with the setting to bring it about, and every action in the story should have purpose. What they touch should have a “why” attached to it, revealing the POV character’s mindset, and showing, rather than telling, readers what’s really important in the scene.
3) Over-Describing Or Describing The Wrong Things
Sometimes in our enthusiasm to draw readers into the scene, we go a little crazy when it comes to describing. Trying to convey every feature, every angle, every facet of the setting will not only smash the pace flat, it will likely cause the reader to skim. And, if they skim, they are missing all that great description you’ve worked so hard to include. So, to avoid over-describing or focusing on the wrong details, try to make each bit of description earn the right to be included. It isn’t just about showing the scene—the weather, the lighting, the colors and shapes—it’s also about offering detail that does double duty somehow. Ask yourself, is the detail I want to include doing something more than showing the reader where the characters are? Is it also characterizing, evoking mood, reminding the POV character of his goal and why he wants it so bad? Is this detail creating a challenge in some way, standing between the character and his goal? Is it helping to convey his emotional state, or does it symbolize something important within the context of the story?
Setting description should always be adding to the scene, revealing more about the characters as it helps to push the story forward.
4) Not taking Advantage of POV & Emotion Filters
Another area that can water down the effect of setting description is a very distanced narrative where every detail is explained, rather than through the emotional filter of the POV character. A character who is anxious is going to view the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of any given setting differently than a character who is excited, or disappointed, or even filled with gratitude. Being able to filter the character’s world through their senses and emotions helps to pull the reader close to the character, and creates a deeper understanding of who they are, laying the groundwork for empathy.
5) Choosing A Setting That Is Convenient Rather Than Meaningful
Because the setting can steer the story, evoke emotion, remind the hero or heroine of missing needs and create a window into past pain, we need to get specific when we choose a location. Two questions to ask ourselves as we hunt for the perfect place is 1) what is the outcome of this scene, and how can I use the setting to generate conflict and tension (good or bad) to really amp up what is about to take place, and 2), how can I create an emotional value in this setting?
Emotional values—settings which mean something to one or more characters– are especially important. For example, imagine a character who is about to be interviewed for an important job. He’s confident because he’s got the skills they need, and the experience this company covets. His potential employer decides on an informal lunch interview, and our character is eager to impress. A restaurant setting makes sense…but why would we choose just any old restaurant for this scene to take place? Instead, let’s pick the very same restaurant where our character proposed to his girlfriend two years earlier and was rejected. By having this interview take place in this particular restaurant, we have created an emotional value—it represents something to the character: rejection.
Choosing this restaurant will put our character off balance, and the echoes of his past failure will be with him during the interview. This will almost certainly affect his behavior, creating tension and conflict. Will he get the job? Will he blow the interview? The outcome is now uncertain. Take the time to choose the best location for each scene, because the storytelling currency will be well worth the effort!
What other common mistakes do you see happen with the setting? Let me know in the comments!
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as four others including the newly minted Urban Setting and Rural Setting Thesaurus duo. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.