The Importance of Setting

I’ve been thinking a lot about setting lately — how certain settings in novels come alive . . . and how describing setting has sometimes been a struggle for me.

I tend toward blank room syndrome: placing characters in a seemingly blank room and calling “action.” Instead, I desire the richness of setting attached to many of my favorite novels. Sometimes a setting itself is almost a character, acting and challenging the protagonist and others or mentoring them in some way.

Different settings evoke a different tone, emotions, sensations, thoughts, tension. Consider your own immediate reaction to the following locations, all from well-known stories:

Lucy opening the wardrobe
Lucy discovers Narnia
The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe

Narnia

District 13

Camp Half-Blood

Neverland

Hogwarts

Forks, Washington

Oz

(From The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, Twilight series, and The Wizard of Oz)

Just reading those names and pausing for a moment, we can imagine ourselves there. The worlds are fleshed out, seemingly real, though only imaginary.

But the same world-building occurs even in contemporary fiction. For instance, the world from Dairy Queen*, a novel about a small-town teenage girl growing up on a dairy farm, is quite different from the world of privileged teenage thief Katarina Bishop in Heist Society*. We all live in a distinct world of some sort of other, and authors bring us into a character’s world when they effectively paint that picture through description, dialogue, and a character’s perspective.

If you’ve read the following, you may also have an immediate reaction to these contemporary “worlds”:

Hazel Grace’s support group room (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

Paris boarding school (Anna and The French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins)

The town of Rosewood (Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard)

Camp Green Lake (Holes by Louis Sachar)

So why has this all come to my mind lately? Two reasons. One, because I’ve been reading through The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter, and the girls’ spy school is a rich setting that tells so much about the main character’s life. And two, because I was writing a scene last week in which my own main characters attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and I pondered how to describe the building where animals are on display. So I asked myself:

What does it look like? It’s sort of like an indoor barn.

What does it smell like? Like hay and livestock.

What does it sound like? Like a bunch of animals and crowds milling around.

What are people wearing? Everything from all-out cowboy gear to t-shirts and shorts.

Cattle at Texas State Fair
Texas State Fair, but you get the picture, photo by Andreas Praefcke, via Wikimedia Commons

Notice how all of my original answers pretty much assumed my readers had been in a barn or around livestock or seen cowboys. Because that’s a world I’ve lived in! I had to regroup and think about how to explain it all to someone who’s maybe never seen a cow milked or a rodeo event or a parking lot carnival or real (not stereotyped) cowboys. Because I want that scene to come alive, to make them feel what it’s like to attend the world’s largest livestock exhibition.

Such setting attention enhances a story, draws the reader in, and deepens the characterization. And it’s worth my effort as an author.

Now what other efforts have I put in this week regarding writing? Here’s my weekly update for A Round of Words in 80 Days:

ROW80

1. Finish editing Sharing Hunter, young adult contemporary novel. Six chapters done, which I consider good since I didn’t have as much time to work this week with registering kids for school and enjoying some last-hoorah summer activities with the family.

2. Edit, polish, and release two more short stories in my Paranormal Playground series. Still aiming for September releases after #1 is finished.

3. Read 12 books. I read 2k to 10k: How to Write Faster, Better, and More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron and Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover and Only the Good Spy Young by Ally Carter (a wonderful series, with a unique setting of a girls’ spy school). I started a couple of other books, but sadly abandoned them. All in all, I’ve now read 9 books this round.

4. Attend RWA Conference and Day of YA in San Antonio and follow-up as needed. Waiting on feedback on my query for those who requested a manuscript at agent/editor meetings.

So what stories have impacted you with a rich setting? What locations or cultures can you easily imagine after reading about them? And how was your week?

*Dairy Queen is by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Heist Society is also by Ally Carter

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13 thoughts on “The Importance of Setting

  1. Setting is one of those things I definitely wish I was better at. If I had given myself more time, I’d have spent more words on enhancing the setting in Soulless, especially since so much of it involves travelling through a wide landscape. It’s something I plan on incorporating a lot more into my Aryneth works, too, and not just to up the word count. There’s just such a tradition of rich setting descriptions in fantasy that I’d love to have a better handle on it. Some of my favorite setting descriptions actually come from Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite; their descriptions of New Orleans helped to fuel a love for a place that I’ve never been since a fairly younger age, and I can’t wait to one day visit and relive all those fantastic descriptions.

    Great job on your goals, too! September is coming up on us pretty fast, so keep up the great work!

    1. New Orleans from Anne Rice’s book is a fabulous example! Her books made that town come alive for readers and was the perfect setting for her characters. I just couldn’t imagine the story taking place anywhere else.

      Thanks, L.S.! Have a terrific week!

  2. What comes to mind along the lines of using a setting in a scene…is the use of all five senses when you can in a scene. One that I have not seen very much of is the sense of smell. I’m trying to use this more often in my writing.

    1. Agreed. I have a wonderful beta reader who really called me on this early on, so now I can almost hear his voice saying, “What does it SMELL like?”

      By the way, smell is the sense most tied to memory.

  3. I struggle with setting too. Part of it, I think, is that I know in my head where they are/what the places look like. So, I don’t always think about describing it. Same with character description. I usually have to add it in during later drafts.

    Sounds like you’re making good progress.

  4. Well, I’ve always been a sucker for Hogwarts and Middle Earth. 🙂 But I also enjoy it when authors can take a real town, city, or region and bring it to life on the page. Those little details add up.

    How did you like “2K to 10k” by Rachel Aaron? I read it a few months ago and found it extremely helpful.

    1. That’s true, Denise. I’ve even wondered if it’s harder to take a well-known town and describe it vividly. Especially since, if you get something wrong, you can really get called on it! 😉

      On 2k to 10k, I’m not that eager to put down 10k words a day, but I found a lot of helpful advice in there to increase efficiency and effectiveness. So yeah, I agree that it was well-worth reading.

  5. I LOVE writing setting! I know, I know – weird-o. But, it is probably my very best writing skill. I enjoy the challenge of trying to explain to a blind person what something looks like, or a deaf person what something sounds like, or tastes like, etc. I often have to go back and take a lot of that stuff out of my books, because I go over the top on description.

    I love how you’ve assigned us the task of formulating an immediate picture by simply naming a place. Of course movies help with that, but I think success as an author comes when the reader can immediately identify where they are.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  6. I love settings and atmosphere, and the examples you gave are all great. Notice how they have all been made into films – probably not a coincidence! I love atmosphere in films, and the setting goes a long way to generating it. I like to try and think as if I’m writing up what I see as a film. For me, it makes it easier to put myself in the room, on the street, or hanging off a mountain’s edge.

    Cheers!

    1. I didn’t even think about the film thing, but yeah, they have. I do sometimes try to picture a scene as a film and figure out what details would stand out to the character whose POV I’m in.

      And hanging off a mountain’s edge? Wow. Yeah, that’s setting! 🙂

  7. Excellent progress, congrats!

    I agree with you completely on the importance of setting — when it come down to it, you can’t conceive of characters without their background, which means setting is a part of every character’s emotional makeup.

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