Setting, I think, is one of the most difficult aspects of a book to make breathe and live. For me, it takes a little more effort than other aspects of writing, but for my husband, who loves creating settings, it’s the easiest part. To each his own, I suppose, but for those of us who require a little more effort in setting creation, I have some tips.
This came about because I’m working on a new book and really want to make the setting an integral part of the plot and a crucial element of the characters. Many of the bits of advice in these articles helped me, so I’ve selected the most interesting or useful, in my opinion, to pass on to you dear readers.
1) Agent Vickie Motter says that, if you take your story and put it in another setting and the story doesn’t really change, then your setting isn’t developed enough. My favorite example of a setting that’s a character is Hogwarts from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Every detail enriches the plot and characters, and aspects of the setting, especially on Diagon Alley, change to reflect the main conflict of the series. Harry Potter never could have happened anywhere else.
2) To figure out those details and aspects of your setting that will add depth to a book, Susan Meissner recommends interviewing your setting. Ask it how it is toward your characters and why. I would add to this that it might help to ask it what it smells like, tastes like, etc. You can also ask it what secrets it has and why it keeps them.
3) Xander Bennett writes about screenplays, but his advice also can help novelists. He says that if you find yourself describing those typical features like eye color, what a bedroom looks like, or the weather, you’re not describing a setting that is its own character. A description becomes unique and memorable when it breaks away from the typical. If your character descriptions look like something you’d hear on the radio when the police are after a criminal, you might want to rethink them.
4) He also recommends to always have the characters doing something, interacting with the setting while they do whatever the plot requires. While novelists require written description to fill in the details that TV or movies provide visually, Mr. Bennett has some poignant points. Showing characters in action of some sort is always preferable unless stasis is required and consciously chosen to reflect something specific in a character or plot, but even then, make that choice with extreme care and compelling reason.
5) Finally, like characters, settings should be active rather than passive; they change, move, and are dynamic separate from the characters. For example, traffic jams, crumbling foundations, Christmas shoppers all can happen, even if your character doesn’t create them. Settings reflect and affect character, and it should play a role in the story. Timothy Hallinan illustrates this well and how a setting isn’t just a setting, it’s a character’s version of that setting. This is essential to remember when selecting details and ways of describing a world.
What are your favorite settings in novels, movies, TV shows, or any other story format?