When I was an instructor for an international correspondence writing school several years ago, I carried a full load of students and hence read tons of manuscripts. I stayed with that position for over nine years. Frequently, I came upon memorable characters in some of the lesson submissions, and sometime I even came upon an engaging plot. But many of the plots were sorely lacking in the third member of that basic triumvirate: setting.
A simplistic definition of setting is a backdrop against which your characters perform. A sense of place is essential to a novel. The successful novelist calls into play every aspect of environment. A lack of visual scene will leave your characters and their actions and interactions, suspended in an empty kind of limbo.
Not a Decoration
When talking about setting, I am not referring to paragraphs of flat descriptions. I’m talking about a backdrop that must be more than impressions painted on scenery panels like a stage play. The setting or background must be interwoven with your characters and what they are doing at any given time.
If you have previously viewed setting as merely a “decoration” for your story, I am challenging you to think again. I would challenge you to think of the story setting as you would a character. This will require that you plumb the depths of the place.
Evoke Reader’s Senses
As you plumb the depths, create ways in which to evoke all the reader’s senses in the descriptions. What sounds and smells are prevalent? What are the prevalent weather patterns? How do the people talk? What foods do they love? If your novel is set in a rather stringent setting, can you move about by using flashbacks to another place and time?
Let this background come to life through your characters’ thoughts, dialogue and actions. No matter how beautifully you describe a room, a season, a day or whatever, your reader is apt to skip over it in order to pick up the thread of the narrative. Let the reader live the setting through that character’s experiences and reactions.
Consider Your Own Roots
Think about how your own roots (where you grew up) colored and affected who you are. Now apply that to your characters. How does the setting affect that character and shape and mold his or her personality? Personally, I know very little about mountains, or the seashore. (sigh) I have lived most of my life in the landlocked, flat Midwest. That is who I am.
In my novel Good-Bye Beedee (David C. Cook’s Quick Fox line) the main character Marcia has lived all her thirteen years on her grandparents’ ranch in Oklahoma. She’s been on horseback most of those years. But then her father remarries (her mother had died years earlier) and moves her and younger brother, Chuckie, to Kansas City. Their first home there is a too-small apartment.
The vast, wide-open, dusty Oklahoma countryside IS Marcia. It’s who she is. She lives and breathes horses. And horses and the ranch go together. Like a magnet she is drawn to a boarding stable that she locates in Kansas City. Can you just imagine what the smell of a stable would do for young Marcia? Leather, hay, feed, horse flesh, even the manure. She loves it all. It’s all part of the setting – the in–depth backdrop for the novel.
Setting As Character
My point here is that the setting is intrinsically interwoven into the characters. Nothing is painted on. Or added in for a dab of color. It establishes the story and carries it. The setting is as real as the characters.
Do you have to know your setting firsthand in order to write about it? The answer is no, you do not. Of course, the more research you can do the better equipped you will be to write about it. Visit if possible. Stay a while if possible. Read as much as you can to give you a clear background. Talk to people who live there. Better yet, talk to people who have lived there for a long time.
Sprinkle; Don’t Shovel
While you can never have too much factual information stored in your subconscious about your setting, you can indeed put too much into your story at a time. Carefully avoid dumping a shovel-full of information just to impress the reader. Believe me, it will be skipped over. (Or the book will be cast aside never to be picked up again.)
Am I saying there will never be a paragraph that simply paints a picture or sets the stage? No, not at all. Just make sure that that is the exception and not the rule throughout the novel. The key is to steadily stir in the information, here a little, there a little.
Show, Don’t Tell
Take your favorite novel, written by your favorite author and notate where the setting has been interwoven by dialogue, or the character’s inner thoughts, or directly through the character’s actions and interactions. You will learn much from such exercises.
Now go back over your own unfinished novel and if this is an area that needs work!