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 1920s).
Here are some guidelines for making setting a valuable element in our novel.
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 interior.
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 experience.
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 face.
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 (www.thayerediting.com).