Five Big Tips About Setting
by James Thayer
We have invented a compelling hero for our new novel, and we’ve come
up with a riveting plot. Our outline looks solid; we’ve got the
scenes sketched out, and they play terrifically in our minds. The
story is so ready, it’s about to write itself. And so we begin
writing our novel.
But we may be missing an element that would make the novel even more
vivid and distinct: gripping settings. Settings can help your novel
leap off the page for the reader.
A setting is the time and place your novel occurs. It is the
background in front of which your characters act out your story.
Without a setting, characters are suspended in the ether, floating
along, attached to nothing.
There is more to settings that just giving your characters places to
stand or sit. Settings can add vitality and distinctiveness to a
story. Think of Robinson Cruise by Daniel Defoe (the
island), Rose by Martin Cruz Smith (an English coal town 150
years ago), Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (his settings are
so famous they are now called Dickensian London), The Grapes of
Wrath by John Steinbeck (parched Oklahoma), and The Great
Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (wealthy Nassau County in the
Here are some guidelines for making setting a valuable element in
1. Think about the settings. Many new writers don’t give
settings much thought, and so the settings are slighted. It’s easy
to just place our characters in a room or in a park or on a street.
These are default settings, afterthoughts by the writer who suddenly
realizes the character needs to be somewhere, so the writer puts the
character in whatever location readily comes to mind. Give your
settings some thought. Don’t just use default settings.
2. Don’t use dull settings. Our nature is to write about
places we are familiar with. Why? Well, because we know them well,
and we don’t have to do any research or any original thinking about
them. So for settings we use offices, classrooms, front yards, city
streets, living rooms, kitchens, Starbucks, and the automobile
These places are dull. What’s in a living room? Chairs, a sofa, a
rug, a window. An office? A computer monitor, a three-hole punch,
a waste basket. These settings add nothing to your novel. A good
rule: if you go somewhere every day or even once a week, don’t use
that place as a setting in your novel. These locations don’t
entertain the reader. Instead, come up with a setting that shows
the reader someplace new, somewhere outside the reader’s everyday
How do you do this? How do you place your characters in an
interesting setting rather than a dull setting? As a writer, you
are the god in your novel’s universe, and you can do anything you
want. Instead of having a critical conversation between two
characters in a living room, put them in a submarine’s conning
tower, or the control room of a port’s massive container crane, or a
veterinarian’s surgery, or behind the curtain at a fashion runway,
or a sawmill—anywhere that is intrinsically interesting. These
places will add pop to your scene.
3. If you must use a common setting, juice it up. If a dull
setting is inevitable in your novel—say, your protagonist is a
schoolteacher, and so several scenes in a classroom are
natural—juice up the setting with the unusual. Perhaps a terrarium
is on a classroom counter, and two tarantulas are fighting to the
death during the scene. If you must, absolutely must, have a scene
in an office, place three Apache war clubs on the wall. If you
must use a restaurant as a setting, have a waiter sneeze wetly into
her hand, then blithely continue to set out the knives and forks on
the table for the next customers. If an everyday setting can’t be
avoided, place something memorable there.
4. Use all the senses. The novelist and writing instructor
Jack Bickham says “Psychologists have repeatedly shown that sight is
the dominant sense for most normal people. Therefore, it stands to
reason that your sense descriptions will most often be dominated by
how things appear.” Often when a writer comes up with a setting, it
is like a photograph in her mind, and so the setting is often
written as one of sight impressions.
Well and good. But don’t forget the other senses. I
suspect that writers most commonly overlook the setting’s smell, to the
reader’s loss. Few things are as evocative as smell (ammonia,
sulfur, a rose petal, a newly tarred roof, a rotting dead animal,
dust in a library, low tide.). Mentioning the setting’s scent
can instantly conjure up powerful images and memories in a reader.
How about texture? A character walking along a path might feel
rough pebbles or edged cobblestones or hard-packed dirt or the thick
blanket of autumn leaves. Moving through a forest, a character
might place her hand on course bark or soft moss, and might be
brushed by nettles. A prisoner might touch slimy walls, a football
player the little bumps on the ball, an Alaskan musher his dogs’
thick fur and the crusty (probably yellow) snow.
Sound? Church bells in the distance, the tick-tock of an antique
clock, the electric rasp of a welder working next door, aspen trunks
clicking together in the wind, and, yes, the proverbial dog barking
in the night. Every place but outer space has noises. Set them out
for your readers.
5. Pace the description of the setting. Not all settings
deserve the same attention from the writer. If your setting is
fascinating, set it out in more detail and at greater length. A
slaughterhouse is worth 200 words, and so is a mineshaft, a
bordello, a Hong Kong sweatshop, a jet fighter cockpit, and wherever
your 23rd Century hero landed when she accidentally shot
through a wormhole. But a dull setting—a living room, which we’ve
used as a backdrop only because it couldn’t be helped, despite a lot
of thought—deserves only thirty words.
If your setting is highly interesting and so worth considerable
description, don’t dump the description all in one place, a big
block of uninterrupted text. Several sentences on the setting here,
then more dialogue, then another sentence or two about the setting,
then some action, and perhaps another couple sentences about the
setting. There’s no need to paint the picture of the setting for
the reader all in one place in the novel. The description can be
broken up, and set out here and there.
Also, when the action is fast, the description of the setting should
be short. If Ranger Smith is running for his life because a cougar
is chasing him, now is not the time for a 300-word description of
the forest. The reader wants to see if the cougar catches dinner,
not read about whether the daisies in the meadow are in bloom, and
whether the mountain in the distance has glaciers on its northern
The same is true for dialogue. If the characters are in intense
discussion, and something critical is about to be revealed to a
character and to the reader, avoid long descriptions of the
setting. The reader wants to hear them talk.
Here’s a caution. Setting can be a powerful tool for a
writer. But your novel is not a National Geographic magazine.
Readers do not buy most novels for the setting. They want characters
and story. While well-done settings can contribute mightily to the
readers’ enjoyment, settings aren’t the reason the bookstore
customers will buy your novel. So when in doubt about the length of
a setting’s description, it’s probably best to make it shorter
rather than longer.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet;
Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in
March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of
Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service