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Fantastic Settings and How to Write Them

Developing a Distinctive World for Your Story

by Michaela Whatnall

There are countless elements to consider when writing a novel, from character development, to plot points, to narrative voice—the list goes on. Surprisingly, one important aspect of any novel that often falls by the wayside is also one of the most foundational elements: setting.

The setting should not be treated as an afterthought. In fact, your setting should help to shape and define your story. Rather than placing your characters and storyline in a “typical” place with no particular defining features, you should work to develop the setting so that it has significance. A reader is far more likely to be convinced by the world of the story, and to want to spend time reading about it, if that setting comes alive on the page.

How does a writer go about creating an unforgettable setting? Today we’re sharing five tips and two short exercises that can help you to develop your manuscript’s setting. These tips were written with contemporary fiction in mind, but they are entirely applicable to other genres as well.

Make the setting vital to the story.

Your setting should be significant to both the characters and the plot. Ask yourself: why do these events transpire here? What is it about this place that allowed or caused my plot to happen? If you could just as easily change the location and have very little else differ in your story, you should start to consider how the setting could more strongly influence what happens in the novel.

Consider how the setting affects the lives of the people living there.

Aspects of a location will affect the jobs residents have, the ways that they travel, their daily routines, and how they spend their spare time. For example, if your story takes place near a lake, perhaps many people living there work with boats; maybe most downtime is spent fishing or walking the shoreline. The setting offers a great opportunity for further development of your characters, whose pasts, habits, and even temperament could be affected by the place that they live.

Tie the setting into a character’s emotions.

When creating a location for a significant scene, consider your character’s associations with the setting. How do they feel about it? What is their history with the place? In her guest blog post on Cynsations, Becca Puglisi advises:

“When it comes to the important scenes in your story, complicate matters for your protagonist and tap into his or her emotions by choosing settings with personal significance.”

Be strategic when crafting your settings, paying special attention to how your character’s prior experiences with a location can heighten the emotions and tension in the scene.

Make the setting memorable.

When writing contemporary fiction for children or young adults, there are a handful of common locations that crop up in many books: a school, a suburban neighborhood, the streets of a big city, a small rural town. Even if the type of place you’re writing about has been covered in other books, the key is to make your setting come alive as a place in its own right. Harvey Chapman puts it simply in his article Building Your Story’s Setting:

“Just as you wouldn’t create a bland character, so you shouldn’t create a bland story setting.”

What makes your character’s high school different from the high schools your readers have already encountered in other books? Give each location history and depth that sets it apart.

Consider seasons and the weather.

Take some time to think about when in the year your story takes place. In most parts of the world, the seasons dictate a lot about the local landscape and weather, which will affect how your characters interact with their surroundings. What’s more, utilizing the four seasons can enhance the themes of your manuscript. Bonnie Randall notes the following in her article Atmospheric Pressure: Employing the Four Seasons to Enhance Atmosphere:

“The season within which you set your story and the images you share will automatically be tapping into the innate impressions your reader already has of that season.”

You can make use of these innate impressions by intentionally choosing a season (or seasons) that is relevant to both your theme and overall plot.

Now that you have some ideas for developing the setting of your novel, try these two activities to help you translate the world of your story onto the page.

Seek inspiration from the places around you.

It’s not always possible to travel when brainstorming your novel’s setting, but learning to appreciate the finer points of a location can be achieved in your own hometown. When you’re out and about, pay attention to the aspects of your surroundings that other people may not notice at first glance. Now Novel’s article Novel Setting: 7 Tips to Getting Setting Description Right suggests this tip for developing an eye for the unusual:

“When you go somewhere new, whether to a new town or a part of your city you don’t frequent, take down some notes in a journal. What makes this place distinctive?”

Ask yourself the same question when you return to your writing. What makes your setting distinctive?

Have a reader describe the setting to you.

It would be wonderful if the reader could simply read an author’s mind and see the exact world the author imagines. However, we all know it doesn’t quite work that way. Be careful not to assume that your reader can envision the rich setting you see in your head; there’s a chance some important aspects have failed to reach the page. Have someone read your work and then ask them to describe the setting to you. See where they miss parts you wish had been more noteworthy, or where they struggle to describe certain elements. Those are areas you now know to work on strengthening.

We hope these tips have helped you consider new ways of making your setting more essential to your story. What strategies do you use to develop setting? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter at @TanglewoodPub.