Part 1: Seven Tips
by Emilee Newman Bowles
Your plot and characters are vital parts of your story, but they need a place to inhabit: the setting. Even fast-paced action novels need setting details so readers can imagine where the characters are. Here a few tips to keep in mind about setting the scene in your novel.
1. Use setting details throughout your novel. You don’t need to use all your setting description at the beginning of the book. In fact, that’s a great way to lose readers. You can (and should) add a sentence or two of setting details to ground the reader every time the scene changes. Where are they? What are their surroundings? What time of day and season is it (how’s the weather if not generic due to the season)? How will this new setting affect your characters and what they’re able to do or how they do it?
2. Remember that different characters will experience the same setting in different ways and that will change how you describe it. A surfer might describe the ocean as powerful and awe-inspiring. Someone who can’t swim and is afraid of water will likely view the ocean as ominous and terrifying.
3. Do your research. If you’re setting your novel in a real place, make sure you know that place well enough to convince a local. Besides doing online research and reading books, visit the location, soak up the atmosphere, and talk to locals. It’s a great excuse for a vacation! (And you can actually write off some of it in taxes since it’s related to your book! For details on how that works, check out our Taxes for Writers article)
4. You’ve heard it before: show, don’t tell. Think about how the setting feels. Remember all the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. There’s so much more to a setting than what it looks like.
5. Don’t let your plot get lost in too much setting. Have you ever read a book and you skimmed through the descriptions looking for something to happen? You don’t want readers to do that to your book. Your setting doesn’t need to go on for paragraph after paragraph. Be willing to cut your setting descriptions down when you revise. (Our article on not overwhelming the reader with history has great how-to tips that apply to setting too!)
6. Don’t use setting details that don’t matter to your story. If it doesn’t set the mood, affect your character, foreshadow, reveal an important relationship dynamic, or move the plot forward, it doesn’t need to be there (not-overwhelming tips again). The only exception would be when the setting details are lush, intriguing, and key to establishing an environment that is critical to the book—say, when exotic travel is a driving factor in the story (think Eat, Pray, Love); even then, what the reader cares about is how that setting affects the characters and the story.
7. The best way to use setting is symbolically, which can simultaneously fulfill multiple purposes from item six above. Many authors do this well, but two we’d highly recommend are Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone series) and Maggie Stievater (Raven Boys).
Setting can be a small or huge part of your story—even driving your readership in many genres. Stay tuned for our next article on setting as world-building.
Do This Now
Have you ever created a setting that affects your characters emotionally? How did that setting affect their choices? As an experiment, take notes on how a certain type of light or weather affects your mood and thus your choices. Can you apply that to a scene your character faces?
Emilee Newman Bowles is a regular blogger for Eschler Editing. She is also a college English instructor, a freelance editor, and a stay-at-home mom to three children. For her undergrad she majored in reading as many books as possible (also known as English Literature) and later graduated with a master’s in writing from the Book Publishing Program at Portland State University. She blogs about books for children and young adults at www.tesseractbooks.com.