Struggling With Setting


ID-100151097 city rainI’m always struggling with setting – which is tough, because it’s one of the most important elements of any fictional story.

Setting has to make sense within your narrative, it has to seem wonderfully and vividly real to the reader and most of all it has to ultimately serve your character, contributing to their emotional and physical journal.

These cool tips have come from a range of places and sources over the years, but they always help keep me grounded when I’m writing fiction and forming a setting. Hope they help you too.

1. Be detailed

Like, crazy detailed. Vague, generalised descriptions loan themselves to cliche and disbelief, and detract from the punch of your story. If there’s an element of the setting that matters, use detailed description to hone in on it.

2. Use the 5 Senses

We learn them as kids, but it’s easy to forget them when writing. It’s easy to describe what your character is seeing and doing, but don’t forget the other senses too.

  • Sight – what can your character see through his particular character “lens”?
  • Smell – what can your character smell? how can smells add to the atmosphere of the story and setting? what smells are coming from elsewhere in the world?
  • Hear – what sounds and noises permeate the scene? what do these tell us about the setting or narrative?
  • Touch – what do things feel like?
  • Taste – does your setting have a particular taste? what’s it like?

3. Stay Away From Cliches

Blue skies and scary forests and stormy nights are the things you read about in children’s stories. For more advanced levels of fiction, cliches take away depth and meaning (unless you’re doing something cleverly reflexive and self-commentating). As above, dive into details – avoid cliches.

Sometimes, when my creative mind isn’t working quite right, I use cliches as markers. So I might actually write “stormy night, dark skies” – but then I highlight the phrase so I know to come back to it later and work to make it more detailed and less cheesy.

It’s a good trick if you’re on a roll with the plot and don’t want to become held up by the particulars.

4. Make Settings Mean Something

A shop is never just a shop. A road never just a road. A house never a house.

Settings are insights into your main character’s emotional story. What does your setting reflect about your character? What does it represent, metaphorically? And what is its importance in the greater narrative?

5. Use Setting to Deepen Conflict

Setting should be used, in critical moments, to make things harder for your character. Ramp it up a notch.

A guy late for a job interview encounters heavy traffic and incompetent taxi drivers. A girl trying to flee a forest trips on roots and branches. A man trying to find his home becomes lost at sea.

Whatever your setting is, pit it against your characters.

6. Subvert Your Original Ideas

I find this to be a great writer’s block trick, something that can really enrich writing. In short, it means do the opposite – or at least do something different.

If your scene is taking place in a wide, open setting, what would happen if you instead set it in a crowded, tight space?

If your setting is quiet and calm, what would happen if you suddenly moved the action somewhere wild, noisy and chaotic? Will it make things better or worse for the characters?

Experimenting with little setting tricks like this can be great for adding depth to your narrative and hopefully, it forces you to think more critically about what your setting is doing and how it is helping to tell the story and shape the journey of your character.

Do you have another setting tip that works for you? Please ‘leave a comment’ below and share your wisdom.

(Image courtesy of tungphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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