Monday 3 March 2014

Setting as Part of Story

You want readers to feel like they’re in the world of your story. When the character enters a place, you want the reader to feel like they too have entered that place.

How you do this would seem fairly straightforward. You describe everything the character sees and hears and smells and tastes and touches, right?

But you may have noticed that while description of setting in a good book is immersive and entertaining, when you write something like that in your own story it can often feel longwinded and unengaging.

You paint a clear picture of the world but it’s like you’re not actually in the picture, you’re just viewing it from a distance. So how do you close that gap so the reader is pulled into the setting rather than skimming over it?

This is particularly an issue at the start of a story. Once things are moving it becomes a lot easier to engage the reader and this offers a clue to what is often missing.

If I walk into a room and describe it, you will have an idea of where I am but there’s no reason why you should care or be that interested. If I walk into a room with the intention of finding a hidden key I need then my description of the room will be within the context of what I’m looking for. Not only will that create an added level of interest for the reader, it will also give me a guideline with regard to exactly what things I describe.

Setting is not so much about the objective reality (what happens to be in a room) as it is about subjective need (what the character is experiencing).

In the middle of a story those sorts of goals and motivations have usually already been established so things flow a lot easier, although it can still sometimes get away from a writer. Endless descriptions of everything is usually a sign of a writer stalling for time.

The first thing to take into account with any setting is why is the character here?  Once you know that, once you know what it is the character wants, then it becomes much easier to shape the world around those needs.

If a guy walks into a gym locker room, describing the sights and sounds, the smell of sweat mixed with deodorant, the steam in the air, will all be relevant to the experience but they aren’t necessarily relevant to his experience. Why is here?

If he’s here to confront someone then maybe he’s sizing up the men in various states of undress and whether they’re going to be a problem.

If he’s here to plant a bomb then maybe he’s checking out the construction and emergency exits.

If he’s here to buy drugs from a dealer maybe he’s noticing how strong and healthy everyone looks and how weak he feels. 

If he's here to workout, then you may need to dig a little deeper. Does he want to impress a girl? Feeling a bit insecure about his body? How would that insecurity affect the way he views the locker room?

When you narrow the perspective you still allow for description of setting, but you also build momentum that keep things moving.

However, it isn’t always that simple. Sometimes the character has no particular reason to be where they are, it’s just part of their routine. The kid goes to school, the man drives to work, the woman sits in her office. The writer wants to introduce the world as it is before the plot kicks off.

The thing to remember is that just because the main plot isn’t driving the character that doesn’t mean nothing is. Even in the mundane world people want things. The kid is trying to avoid bullies and has a special route from one class to another. The man in the car has a trick to get a parking space that requires him to fool a security guard. The woman has her eye on the corner office that’s occupied by her rival.

All these things will influence how they see their environment. It may not be immediately obvious what their ultimate goal is but the sense that there’s more to the way they see things than simple general description will come through.

Even when a character doesn’t yet know what he’s here to do or he thinks he’s here for one thing and it turns out to be something else entirely, in the character’s mind he’s here for his own reasons. It doesn’t matter what the goal is, and in some cases it gets forgotten once the main plot takes over, but that meshing of description in the service of a goal is what captures a reader’s attention.

All you need to know is what the character is here to do, and then focus on what they would notice while attempting to do it.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet, cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

What the character is experiencing and why - check!

cleemckenzie said...

Makes perfect sense and when you look at the successful scenes that pull you into the setting of the story, character and action are at the heart of those scenes. I always bookmark your posts so I can take refresher courses. :-)

Elise Fallson said...

I often get a bit impatient with books that are description heavy. I’ll find myself asking, why do I need to know this? Is this important? If it's not, I end up skimming the page which pulls me right out of the story. But then again, there are some readers that love lots of detailed descriptions. I suppose some of that depends on genre... All I know is, I'm more of a get-to-the-point kinda reader and I try to keep that in mind when I write, except for when I'm writing comments, then it's....oh look, pictures of cats! :P

Anonymous said...

It's really tough to walk that line of sharing the character's experience through setting without going overboard. This is a great post!

Catherine Stine said...

Very good setting tips. Mood should always tweak the setting, and also yes, the character's movement within it, and reason to be there. A line here and there is better than a setting info-bomb.

Jay Noel said...

I write in 3rd person limited, and it's a very intimate point of view. So a character's viewpoint is crucial in shaping the setting for my readers.

Unknown said...

My critique group got on me the last time I submitted. They say I'm not describing my surroundings and environment. My excuse is, I flesh that out once I get the story down. lol

I do like to use the 8 senses in my environments so the reader can smell and hear things while experiencing the story. I try to stay away from describing too many details, but I seriously need to start fleshing out my environments.

Great tips!

mooderino said...

@Alex - also helps to give the character an interesting goal to give his experience context.

@lee - thanks, glad to be of use.

@same here, I get very easily bored of extensive descriptions that don't tell me anything interesting, even when beautifully written.

@Missy - putting description in the service of a greater goal makes it a lot easier to trim the fat.

@Catherine - mood should come through if you focus on what it is the character wants and how they go about getting it.

@Jay - close 3rd is definitely a useful pov to get across details without making it seem clunky and intrusive.

@Diane - wait, there are 8 senses?

Denise Covey said...

Spot on. I love the gym example.

Karen Lange said...

This is great, thank you! You need to teach a class. I would come if I could! :) It's interesting to note this kind of thing when reading. I can spot the difference between writers who are good at this, but am not always able to implement it in my own writing. This helps.

Christine Rains said...

Excellent post. I find that sometimes not enough attention if given to the setting or too much attention is given. You've hit how to do it properly right on the nose.

Rachna Chhabria said...

"The first thing to take into account with any setting is why is the character here? " Thanks Mooderino for this super post. To be honest I had never thought of it in these terms. Settings for me was always associated with descriptions, I had never connected it to the reason the character is in that place. Will keep it in mind for my current book.

Cathy said...

Yes, you've nailed it. Our attention is focused like that. We're always noticing something specific, and that's how it should be for our characters in our novels, too.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Another great job. "How would that insecurity affect the way he views the locker room?" I think it's easy to forget this when describing the area around the character. What the author might see in the room isn't the same thing the character would--and even that would vary at different times in the book.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

The place has to have meaning, as do all of the items in it.

Unknown said...

This is a great post! Setting is one of my favorite things. I love to put in atmosphere and carefully choose what to describe and how to describe it. But that's with horror, and now I'm floundering in a thriller... Your tips help. Thanks!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Love your last line sum-up. Perfect.

Margo Berendsen said...

I love these examples... you have a gift for putting together succinct examples to clarify some of the more complicated writing techniques!

Unknown said...

Sounds complex. I can only imaging what does into creating a whole new world such as those in certain mythical books.

LD Masterson said...

How did you know I'm just starting the setting-check pass through on my WIP? Perfect timing, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to ramble when I'm describing setting. I believe I do what's mentioned in this post, heightening sensations based on the plot.

Shah Wharton said...

I find it difficult to place lots of setting details as I writing in first person. I tend to add details which influence the POV character, as and when they do. This is also a layer I add after the first draft had come an gone because I could easily lose my narrative flow when writing details. I'm a tangent in human form. :)

Another bookmarked post, Moody!

mooderino said...

@Denise - I had been to the gym before writing the post, may have had an influence...

@Karen W - you're very welcome.

@Karen L - true for me too, all my great insights seem to desert me when its my own work.

@Christine - when it's done right it can be long or short, if the interest is there it can work either way, if it isn't then please let it be short as possible.

@Rachna - most things come down to character even when they don't seem to.

@Cathy - also makes it a lot easier to write.

@Donna - it's a great way to flesh out a character without spelling it out.

@Diane - I think most writers do that naturally once into the book, but it can easily get forgotten at the start.

@Lexa - glad to be of some use.

@Lynda - cheers.

@Margo - the examples are the fun part to write. So much easier when I don't have to write the rest of the story.

@Lilith - Madness!

@LD - because I'm standing right behind you (made you look!)

@Medeia - no one likes a rambler.

@Shah - Life is a tangent! (I have no idea what that means)

The Armchair Squid said...

This weekend, we watched Miyazaki's Spirited Away which I feel uses setting masterfully. The world built for the story - on a very small scale in a bathhouse - is incredibly rich and textured. But what keeps the story moving is the protagonist's reasons for being there, as you suggest.

Valerie Heller said...

This post speaks to exactly what I was working on in my writing practice this morning. Great advice for filtering details!

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