Make Your Setting More than Pretty Scenery

ImageA long time ago a friend and I took a writing class with a well-known author. She asked us to write the first page of a story, which my friend and I did. Then she asked us to change the tense — if it was past, make it present, or vice versa.  No problem. Then she had us change the point of view.

I sat there, stumped. My friend — who had been in a critique group with me for my first book — looked up, saw me just sitting there, and knew exactly what the problem was. “You don’t have a single character in there, do you?” he asked.

Well, no. Not a living one, anyhow.

But I did have a great old house, in a magical location, and I thought I should get points for that.  For me, setting is a kind of character all its own.  When I think of my favorite childhood books — The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Anne of Green Gableswhere the stories took place is equally as important in my memory as who was in them.

So how can you create a setting that stays with readers?  Create it with the same care and thought that you use to craft your characters, and then make them work together — or, depending on your story line, against each other.  Here are a few things to consider:

 Season.  What time of year is it, and why?  How does setting your story during this time influence your characters? For example, does your character get depressed in fall, as the days grow shorter, or is she energized by the colder weather?  Does she look forward to the holidays, or dread them?  How does that extra bit of excitement — or pressure — influence her mood toward whatever else is going on in your story? Can it tip her over the edge, make her lose control a little sooner, keep her from biting back that comment she knows she’ll regret?

 Senses.  Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all influenced by our environment as we move through our day.  We feel the sun on our face after a long winter and unconsciously turn our bodies toward it. We hunch into the wind as we walk from our car to the office.  We listen to the birds sing in the morning, look up when their music suddenly stops because a hawk is flying overhead.  We smell the salt air or the crisp scent of leaves in the fall or the stale dusty odor of a house that’s been closed up for too long.  We’ve tasted the acridness of smoke at the back of our throats.  Any of these are details that can root your character into the setting and make it more real.

By considering the physical environment where your story takes place, you add an extra element.

 Temperature. Ever step out of the airport in Orlando?  It’s a wet, liquid air.  After the cold of New England, my shoulders immediately relax – they’ve been fighting the freezing temperatures without my even realizing it.  Orlando air feels different on my skin, tastes different when I breathe it in, than the sharp dryness of New England in winter.  My whole body feels happier, and that’s reflected in the way that I walk, the way that I move.

You don’t have to write pages and pages of description to make your setting real.  But by considering the physical environment where your story takes place, you add an extra element. A character who is dumped in the dark days of November, for example, may respond a little differently than if he’d been jilted on a beautiful  spring morning.  A character battling not only her archenemy but also the howling winds of winter may have a harder go of it than if the fight was taking place in summer.  Conversely, a character who receives devastating news on a beautiful sunshiny day when everything is perfect gives you a chance to play with that juxtaposition.

Make your setting work for your character, or against her.  Whatever you choose, the important part is that it carries some of the load of your story.  Don’t let your setting be just pretty scenery.

What techniques do you use to intensify your setting and make it more alive?

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About Liz Michalski

Liz Michalski's first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.

Comments

  1. says

    I love this. Setting can be a character. Place can conjure so much. And one thing I like particularly about the weight of place and setting, is that it can either transform our heightened sensitivity to our surroundings into material for our stories, or it can help us learn to observe and see beyond the surface. It’s interesting how some authors avail themselves of the wings and ballast that setting provides and others less so. But stories that take place divorced completely from a physical stage almost always fail to engage. They seem abstract and ethereal, ungrounded from our planet (or another).
    Marialena´s last blog post ..Wordless: ice on the Hudson, with gulls

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    • says

      “But stories that take place divorced completely from a physical stage almost always fail to engage.” I agree, Marialena. An exception for me is “The Ship Who Sang” one of my favorite books as a kid. In it, the protagonist is a human melded to a spaceship. Her senses are all a part of the machine, and I remember loving what Anne McCaffrey did with that.

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  2. says

    Hi Liz,
    Finally! A writer who has the courage to use weather/seasons in writing and say so. Cheers to you, Liz. We hear all the time from writing gurus that using weather in a story at the start or even at the start of a chapter is considered a taboo and a sign of weak writing … “It was a dark and stormy night” by Bulwer-Lytton example, which is all over the place as bad writing. Rule No. 1 in many writing classes is ‘never start the opening of a book with the weather.’

    But any opening can be poorly written and melodramatic, not just weather conditions. I feel as long as the weather description relates to the character or plot in a direct way (as you say “work together”), and is fresh with unique sensory images then the atmospheric can be quite worthy.

    I think that old rule should be smashed and rewritten: Never start the opening of a book with melodrama and cliche.
    paula cappa´s last blog post ..Skulls in the Stars: Solomon Kane

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    • says

      “I think that old rule should be smashed and rewritten: Never start the opening of a book with melodrama and cliche.”

      Great advice, Paula! Thanks, and thanks for reading.

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  3. says

    Love this and couldn’t agree more. In fact, I have one complete manuscript in which I think I might love the setting/world more than I love some of the characters. Of course, when I think about it, I believe the setting itself has become a character in a way (as Marialena mentioned above).
    Kendra Young´s last blog post ..Pinterest for Writers – INSPIRATION

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    • says

      That happens to me too, Kendra! Especially at the beginning of a book, when the setting is clear to me and the characters are less so.

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  4. says

    Well Liz, if anyone can make setting into a meaningful character, it’s you. You did just that in Evenfall. I loved the grounds and the house, and the story just wouldn’t have been the same without them.

    I think what you’re describing is one of the things that contributed to my love of historical fiction and epic fantasy. For me, the world-building is such a vital part of immersion in story. Part of the lure and the challenge for me is creating that sort of immersive quality that I love as a reader. These are wonderful tips and examples.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Spartans, What is Your Profession?

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    • says

      Thanks for the kind words, Vaughn! And I agree — I can remember closing a book and being so upset that I wasn’t in Narnia or Middle Earth anymore. When it is well done, setting is such an important part of that escape.

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  5. Carmel says

    Anne of Green Gables is my favorite *adult* book. :o) And, even though Montgomery starts with a description of a brook, that brook tells us quite a bit about Mrs. Rachel Lynde.

    Like any other character, setting just needs a reason for being there.

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    • says

      Glad to meet another Gables fan, Carmel! And I’d forgotten about the brook — that’s a great example of what a key role setting can play in a story.

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  6. says

    The setting was a crucial backdrop in The Glass Wives. Things wouldn’t have happened the way they did, let’s say, if the characters lived in a big city instead of a little suburban town. In my next novel, setting, I hope, has a life of its own. It really feeds the main character and some of her choices. It was a conscious decision going into the writing of this book — and was different for me.

    Great post, Liz!! Thanks!!
    Amy Sue Nathan´s last blog post ..Welcome! I know why you’re here!

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  7. says

    I love this advice from Hemingway: “Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.”

    We all need to sharpen our senses–makes the writing better.
    Tony Vanderwarker´s last blog post ..Radio Interview With Tony Vanderwarker

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    • says

      That’s a fabulous quote, Tony, and so true. Sometimes as writers we get so far inside our own heads we stop seeing what is in front of us in the real world. Thanks for the reminder.

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    • says

      The quote had me thinking of when asked to look around at what surrounds us, such as the room or the scenery. Then, with closed eyes, try and recall as much as we can. Perhaps that’s a good way to create a setting – with the eyes closed first.
      Jeralyn Lash-Sands´s last blog post ..An Excuse Not to Write

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      • says

        As a time-pressed mom of two young children, I often did just that, Jeralyn — tell myself my story (and see the setting) at night before I fell asleep. It really works!

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  8. says

    Liz,

    I love lush, descriptive reads. They put me right in the midst of the action: to touch, smell, taste, and see the world as the character does. I appreciate any book that can do this, that can take me on a visual journey, all from the comfort of my bed.
    ML Swift´s last blog post ..A Quick Wrap-up of January’s PBC

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    • says

      I love those types of books too, ML. Have you read “A Natural History of the Senses” by Diane Ackerman? It really helped me think about how to conjure a real world in my writing.

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  9. says

    Great post, Liz! I enjoy sketching settings, especially when those sketches bring out details about characters. For example, if a scene takes place in an office, I might decide that three pens are lined up neatly at a right angle to a sheet of paper. Then the question, “Why is that?” comes up and behold! A new character (the one who occupies the office) enters the story’s tapestry. In this way, I find settings, when probed for details, give rise to richer layers of story and, in fact, can augment character, both in the foreground (how does the POV character perceive the setting? What emotions come across in the narrative?) and in the background (what do all the details mean?).

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    • says

      It’s definitely fun using details in setting to hint about a character’s compulsions, Graeme. Thanks for reading!

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  10. says

    Wonderfully illustrated post, Liz. I particularly like your example of the character being dumped in November instead of in spring. Those are really two entirely different stories, and it’s solely because of the setting. It would be an interesting experiment – writing the same piece and only changing the setting to see how that affects the story. I may just have to try that!
    Lori Schafer´s last blog post ..Dust Off Your Fedora and Reload the Gun in Your Purse: Noir City is Coming to Town!

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  11. says

    Liz-

    Your ways of looking at setting are right on. Whole novels can go by without us ever truly experiencing hot or cold, or what a season is like.

    What you haven’t highlighted but which is implicit all the way through your post is this: everything observed in a place is observed through the eyes of a character.

    I take that notion further. While fresh details of place can make it vivid in the reader’s mind, even more important is how the place makes the POV character feel.

    If you think about it, setting is not alive. For the most part it doesn’t move. It changes but only slowly. What makes setting a character–alive, moving, changing–is a character’s perception of those things.

    I believe that description is a rusty tool. We can throw it away. In any event, I’d trade a page of objective (flat) description for one sentence conjuring how a character is experiencing the place where they are.
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..The Art of Falling by Kathryn Craft

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    • says

      That’s so true, Donald — how a character perceives a place, and feels about it, holds much emotional power. Thanks for expanding my idea!

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  12. says

    Wonderful post, Liz, and I really love the way you’ve described how setting is so important. And to top it off, Donald’s comment that setting comes alive through the character’s POV is crucial. I have to really think about this one because I believe I don’t elaborate my “settings” enough.
    Thank you.
    Patricia Yager Delagrange´s last blog post ..HEAR ME ROAR

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    • says

      Glad you liked it, Patricia. Setting is almost always the place where I start in my stories … I think we’d balance each other!

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  13. says

    Agreed, there’s nothing like showing that piece of the world to put the reader IN the world. You captured the love of a good setting beautifully, and your list of places’ aspects is as fun to read as it is useful.
    I wonder, do you go any further in breaking down your options in a setting? Once I start to see what concept works best, I have my own checklist:
    * “Look up.” I think a little about the ceiling or sky, but I also let that remind me about the weather (or temperature indoors), the light level, and how the time of day changes mood.
    * “Look down.” Do roads, corridors, or pathways around things start to appear? What’s it feel like to walk (or sit) on those surfaces? (Still love the time I had a character sinking into a too-soft chair for an awkward interview.)
    * “Sides.” Walls, furniture, streets, terrain, and all the things that flesh out the setting.
    * “Forward.” What do I see stretching ahead… then, how’s that (and the rest of the view) change as I start toward it? –And, when do new touches (and tastes?) come into reach?
    * “Behind.” Where’d I come in from, do I glance back or stay aware of what’s at my back?
    * Then, “activate”: I look at that whole sight-based framework and ask which things are adding sounds and smells, or changing position or otherwise drawing my attention. So much of the narrative is just weaving between what my character does to see/touch different things and when part of the environment sounds off.
    But that’s just where I look for ideas. What really matters is bringing it together, and like you said, using their influence to get under the character’s skin. And the reader’s.
    Ken Hughes´s last blog post ..Invisibility – the best guide you’ll never see

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    • says

      That’s a great list, Ken. Thanks for sharing it.

      Additional questions I tend to ask about my characters include “What ties them to this particular setting,” and “Are they here willingly, or is something compelling them?”

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  14. says

    Great post. In both my novels, setting became a character and as I think about it, it’s because the characters are the way they are because of where they come from and where they want to go. The story I tell cannot take anyplace other than the place I’ve set it in. So I’ll echo Don’s take on it … that the setting has meaning because it is shown through a particular viewpoint.
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..Confusion and Controversy in Catholic Schools

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    • says

      I love how you say characters are the way they are because of where they come from and where they want to go, Vijaya. That sums up so much more than setting.

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  15. says

    “… [O]ne sentence conjuring how a character is experiencing the place where they are.”

    Don – I was stalled out on my ms and was on my spinning bike in our basement, mostly whining about being stalled out but also reading your WBN. After I read your chapter (section?) containing this how-does-it-affect-the-characters take on setting, I stopped whining, stopped spinning and rewrote a few chapters, this time inserting lines here and there about setting, as seen through the eyes and hearts and experiences of my teo MCs. Those additions not only led to some plot changes for each MC, but they also ended up providing significant enrichment to the MCs and their relationships to others.

    Of all the writing advice I’ve read and heard, that one is among the top 3, I’d say, of pieces of advice that most changed my novel. I want everything I write to pass my “Who cares?/How does this matter to the story?” test and until I read what you had to say about it, I couldn’t find a way for setting to pass.

    I hope we cross paths sometime, so I can buy you a drink to more properly thank you for this. (My family will want to thank you too, since you reduced the amount of whining in our home considerably that day).

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  16. says

    Setting is one of my favorite methods to use symbolism. For example, I put my mystery novel protag near a river, then continually use it throughout the novel to symbolize his growth. In my current novel, I use the wild dogs that inhabit the woods to symbolize my protag’s fear of his real enemy (in fact, the title is Camp Dogs). The forest itself also represents an unkown, especially since my character has spent most of his adult life in New York City. I’m (slowly, it seems) learning how to take advantage of every element to add depth to my story premise. Words are too valuable for them to have only a single meaning.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..Why Jesus Matters

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    • says

      I love those ideas, Ron. Your book sounds intriguing. And some of the best writing advice I ever received was to make sure each word carries as much of the load as possible.

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  17. CK Wallis says

    Very helpful post for this new fiction writer! Reading it, I realized that what my current project needs is a definite place to anchor the story. I’ve been working so much on the characters and researching the era (mid-1950s) that I’ve completely neglected to give this story a ‘home’, a specific locale for the characters to inhabit and interact with–currently they could be anywhere in the US.

    Also, for anyone who’s never read it, the first chapter of James Michner’s “Hawaii” does not have one person in it. Rather, it describes the birth of the Hawaiian islands, making the geological events that created them read like a story. That chapter was not only entertaining, but created a mood and atmosphere for the rest of the rest of the story.

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  18. says

    Liz, yes, setting and how characters move and mull in those settings is a current in my new (well, not new but still messing with it) novel, set in San Francisco.

    The wearying tug in your hamstrings after ascending on foot through a neighborhood’s hills, the cut of cool wind across your cheeks riding a bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, the acrid smell of some urine-cloaked doorways off Market Street—all that stuff is in there, and (I hope) working to set off sparks in a reader’s mind.
    Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..Editing: It Ain’t for Sissies

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  19. says

    Interesting. Setting isn’t my strength, but this article is a good reminder that setting is a skill worth working on. Thanks for the tips!

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    • says

      Zezelia, it’s great that you know what your strengths and weaknesses are in your story. I’m the opposite — I think I do a fairly good job with setting, but I’m off to read “Rock Your Plot” by Cathy Yardley for the inspiration. For me, getting better as a writer means always working to identify my weaknesses and fill in any gaps.

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  20. says

    While I don’t think this is a strength of mine, I couldn’t agree more, Liz.

    I’ve been digging into a series of late. It’s set in futuristic New York, and the author weaves so much conflict and texture into a fairly standard police procedural that I have to read every word, because it’s fascinating. And every once in a while–often enough that I don’t grow complacent–one of those setting details precipitates, complicates or *is* a part of the core conflict. It’s an entirely different voice from your lyrical one, but still skillful.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..I Should Have Been Australian (Plus Writer Unboxed Redirects)

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    • says

      That sounds like a really good series, Jan. I feel a little bit like that about the Reacher books by Lee Child — the setting description is always so sparse, but so well done, and sometimes very technical. I’m always reading as fast as I can to find out what happens, but then sometimes I have to go back and figure out how the setting influenced what happened. (And yes, I’ve been known to skip ahead.)

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    • says

      Glad it helped, Greta! That’s what I love about Writer Unboxed — there’s always some new spark for inspiration!

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  21. Cal Rogers says

    I think the key to setting is to never include it for its own sake, not even to make it a character, but to use it to reveal something about the character who’s experiencing it. One person walks outside a cabin in the mountains and sees snakes, bugs and poison ivy, as he feels a chill and chokes on the pollen in the air. Another person revels in the autumn colors and the eagle soaring overhead, delights in the wild flowers and butterflies, and feels invigorated by the crisp cool air. They are both standing in exactly the same place, but are shown to be very different people through the details that catch their attention.

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    • says

      “They are both standing in exactly the same place, but are shown to be very different people through the details that catch their attention.”

      You nailed it, Cal. That’s exactly what setting should do.

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