Setting informs the reader of the time and place of your story.
It can include the time period, the physical location, the climate, and the social surroundings.
But it can do a lot more.
An example of this is the middle grade book, Walking Through Walls. It’s set in 16th century China, and the speech, the descriptions of the behaviors, the clothes, the trades, the food, and more all add to the authenticity of the time period.
This allows the reader to get a feel for the environment the protagonist is in. It helps bring the reader into the time period.
You setting descriptions can be powerful.
- It takes a village to raise a child.
Okay, that’s kind of a stretch for Tip #1 on how to make your setting come alive.
I was going for: it takes all the senses when describing setting. Don’t limit it to just one.
It seems the majority of authors stick to the scenery – what can be seen. While this is an important sense, the reader will become more involved if there’s more to ‘feel’.
To make your setting come alive, your fictional landscape, use as many senses as you can. You should include smell, touch, sound, and if the story allows, even taste.
In Walking Through Walls, the protagonist Wang is walking home:
Wang ambled back to the cottage. He noticed his favorite flower, the lemon lilies, in full bloom. They draped the landscape. Hmm, they smell so good.
While that passage doesn’t go into detail, it brings the smell of the lemon lilies into the reader’s mind, bringing another sense into the picture.
Here’s another scene from Walking Through Walls:
Tired and hungry, Wang trudged through fog thick as porridge.
This gives the reader a bit more insight into Wang’s journey. Again, while it’s not explained in detail, the fog might have fell damp on his skin. Maybe it left beads of water on him. The reader has something more to picture and imagine than just a fog.
The senses can also help to bring backstory into the story. Through taste, smell, and even texture, the character can remember people or times from their past, enlightening the reader to important elements of the character’s history.
- Use your character’s emotions to describe settings.
If your character is in a good mood or reflective, he will sense the world around him much different than if he’s in a bad mood or angry.
Going back to Wang and the lemon lilies, if he’s happy, he might bend down and pick up one of the flowers, bring it up to his face and take in the sweet odor.
If Wang is angry, he might trample over the lemon lilies, grumbling under his breath.
How the character reacts to or describes his surroundings will add an element of emotion.
- Treat your setting like part of your story.
Your setting can create a deeper experience for the reader. Using rich details will help the reader dive further into the story. She’ll feel like she’s there.
It helps the reader understand what the character is feeling, what he’s facing.
Here’s another passage from Walking Through Walls:
Slowly his gaze traveled up and up and up until he could see no further. The mountain loomed above him like a never-ending wall. Its thick giant trees left little space between them for a trail.
This gives the reader a pretty good picture of what Wang was facing, bringing the reader into the story.
- Add just enough setting description.
Okay, you’re a writer and it may come easy to write every little detail about a setting. You might want to capture it from multiple views or describe every color.
Well, if you add too many details that aren’t important to the story, the reader may get bored and skim over that section.
This may lead the reader to wonder what other sections she’ll have to skim over.
While you want to keep the setting descriptions within limits, the description or detail you include should do more than just show where the characters are, if at all possible. Think emotional state, symbolizing, evoking a memory, etc.
Going back to Wang looking up at the formidable mountain, it foreshadowed the difficult journey he had begun.
Just like the rest of the story, the setting description should move the story forward.
The setting and its descriptions help create a connection between the reader, the character, and the story.
If you’re writing a children’s picture book, you can ignore the above.
The illustrations in a picture book fill in all the setting descriptions.
They show the emotions, the surroundings, the characters… they show what the story text doesn’t say.
It’s a whole different writing experience.
This article was inspired by:
5 Mistakes Writers Make When It Comes to the Setting
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