Novel Building Blocks: Setting - article

Setting is the backdrop of the novel. It plays a key role in many plots, especially when the conflict is man vs. nature. It’s always a good idea to treat setting like a character. Think of it as a personality. Setting is much more than a mere description of the location and time of a story. When used to good effect, setting can even reveal the desires and intentions of the characters. It can also be used to create mood and tone. Setting should always be doing double duty.

To create a realistic setting, many writers use details from real world places even for imaginary places. Pay special attention to details. Try to find the specific word that describes an object instead of a general one. For example, tree is a general description. Loblolly Pine is specific. Don’t stop at visual description when creating an authentic setting. All the senses should be invoked in a setting. Include tastes, smells, sounds and textures. Again, always search for specific details. Also be aware that too much of a good thing will cause the narrative flow of your story to grind to a halt. For example, “the smooth, kelly green, croaking frog stuck to the window.” Pick one detail that best fits your story: “the smooth frog stuck to the window.”

Settings are three-dimensional so authors must cultivate the ability to describe in three dimensions. Rooms, buildings, beaches: settings don’t change size. On page one, page 50, and page 100, setting elements must stay the same size, be oriented in the same direction, and have the same details. A notebook of setting scrap can help with keeping the setting uniform throughout the novel. Clip together photos of objects and places. Add maps, videos, and non-fiction description to this collection. Every time you refer back to particular locations in your setting, check your collection. This will keep you from making logical errors. This kind research can also help with creating authentic historical or fantastical worlds.

Setting details should be woven throughout the story and not appear in big chunks. Interweave the details with action and dialogue. Also go easy on details. Avoid putting them in series like this: the black Rottweiler, the red Corvette and the wide Brazos River… Spread them out through the scenes. Always show the setting; don’t tell. For example, avoid telling the reader it’s freezing. Show characters shivering, icicles hanging off the eaves of houses and snow scuttling across the ground. Only so much setting can fit in a scene. Long chapters can take more details. Short chapters hold fewer details.

Setting is a complex novel element. Take time for needed world building. Know the place your characters populate. Go beyond just knowing the physical details. Know the social context, the politics of the time, the popular philosophies, and the deep-seated beliefs -- let this knowledge shape your setting on your journey to write your best novel.

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