Of all the various moving parts a writer needs to worry about, setting is probably the least exciting, but one of the most helpful. Action, dialogue, characterization – these are the aspects of storytelling that draw us to the keyboard with enthusiasm, raring to go. Setting, on the other hand, can feel like a tedious chore. But mastering the skill of writing setting is critical if you want to create great stories that people will love to read.
The primary purpose of setting is to set establish the “stage,” so that readers will be oriented in the scene. If you don’t establish the basic layout early in the scene, readers will feel an uncomfortable detachment from what they are reading about. It is important to take care of this at the top of the scene, so that the reader is free to focus on the more important things that are going on—the conflict driving the scene.
Ideally, you want to make setting do more than one thing. For example, by careful word choice, you can also establish a tone. A tone can be scary, somber, tense—any mood you want the reader to feel. Think of this function of setting as similar to a film score. The music plays in the background, and the viewer might not even be aware of it on a conscious level, but it influences how he or she interprets what’s on the screen. Similarly, your choice of words in a setting will affect the reader’s emotional response to the events happening in the scene.
Another objective that setting can accomplish is to enrich characterization. As much as possible, a description of the setting should be filtered through the point of view of a character. If you do this well, the reader not only learns the important details of the setting, but also learns more about the character. You accomplish this effect by being selective about what elements of the setting the character notices. The snobby character notices with distaste the shabby furniture, while the cowardly character sees danger wherever he looks.
When writing setting, make sure you carefully balance it against other aspects of the scene, particularly conflict. The biggest risk of scene setting is that it is generally static. You pause the story to offer the reader information. For example, the character enters the room and becomes aware of a couch, two chairs, a coffee table, etc. This is fine in a brief paragraph supporting by more exciting sequences of conflict, but if you overindulge in setting (for example by getting very detailed about the beautiful antique furniture), you risk losing the reader’s attention. You need to establish just enough detail to let the reader visualize the scene (and hopefully get a sense of the tone and the POV character’s personality, as suggested above) and then move quickly to the action. Don’t fall into the trap of over-describing the setting. In my opinion, too little is better than too much.
Another tip—don’t rely solely on visual description. There are five senses, and all of them can be evocative. Because most of us consume a lot of movies and TV, the natural urge is to fill our descriptions with sights and sounds. But smells, textures (touch), and even taste can really bring a setting to life.
One final tip about setting—you only need to do it once for each location. This took me a while to figure out. Readers have good memories, and you need to trust them. If in Chapter 1 you describe a character’s office, you don’t need to describe it again when the characters return there in Chapter 7. Maybe mention one detail as a reminder to quickly anchor the scene (a cluttered desk, for example) but don’t go through the full geography of the place if you’ve already done it. Your readers internalized the setting the first time.
I hope these thoughts on setting are helpful to other writers, and interesting to readers. If you have any thoughts on this subject, please share them in the comments section below.