As a writer of study guides on literature, I find the varied approaches authors use to conjure setting quite fascinating. I’ve come to understand the techniques that effectively draw readers in, which I want to share with you all by analyzing some great literary content!
First, get in the mindset.
Designing the setting of your novel is a unique part of the writing process. Crafting setting from a blank page is like an artist starting with a fresh canvas. You have your creative tools. You have your concept of what you want to paint with words. Now you have to enter that setting within your mind. There are many different ways authors suggest getting in the mindset of setting design. Whether you refer to Pinterest boards or photographic research or listen to music, find a process that inspires you and sets the mood of the setting(s) you wish to convey.
Write with all five senses.
If you want your setting to be vivid and lifelike, you’re going to have to paint a picture as though your readers, like your characters, are actually there. If you’re writing a fiction that takes place in Paris, for example, it’s not enough to describe how the city appears. We have photographs and paintings for that. Think of the smooth lilting sound of French vowels as your character strolls the Champs Elysées. The buttery flakiness of warm croissants straight out of the oven. In the WWI fiction Lost Roses, author Martha Kelly describes a 17th century house for sale in Connecticut by engaging sight and smell:
“We stepped onto a side porch, under a Chippendale trellis, heavy with an ancient wisteria vine thick as an elephant’s trunk, and entered the house into a small dining room. The empty house had a musty smell, which came from being closed up too long, layered with that New England-house scent of beeswax and honesty.”
The author walks us through her description as the characters walk through the house, as though we are all together on the tour. The historical nature of the house is indicated by the wisteria vine that has been growing for centuries. We all know that ‘musty’ old house smell the author is referring to, but she takes it a step further. Readers are encouraged to imagine the 17th century New Englanders who built the house, with their beekeeping and the good ole honest physical labor of the time.
Note: do not force your narrator or character to include all five senses at once. Using the majority of the five senses for setting may be appropriate if your character is experiencing sensory overload (ex. they are walking through a busy fish market or a perfume store filled with hundreds of different fragrances).
Join setting, plot, and character.
Some novel settings are so vivid because they are integral to the plot. Think about setting in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The circumstances associated with each setting are intricately arranged pieces of the grand plot: Frodo journeying to Mordor to destroy the One Ring, taking detours across Middle Earth. Tolkien’s story would not have been nearly as interesting if Frodo and Sam had travelled in a straight shot all the way to Mordor, not to mention the sub-plots and battles taking place elsewhere. Do not simply consider setting as the environment in which your plot takes place — by interweaving the two, you add dimension to each. Setting can also be used to develop a character or group of characters. Think of the association between the lush, rolling hills of the Shire and its comparatively peaceful dwellers, the Hobbits. Does Sauron, the ultimate villain of Middle Earth, dwell amongst rolling hills? Not so much. His evil nature is reflected in the sulfurous pits and jagged peaks of Mount Doom.
Use figurative language.
Every author should have a solid understanding of literary devices and techniques. Literary devices are not just your friends, they’re your best friends. Literary devices are spices in the gourmet dish of setting; without them, your writing risks being – dare I say it? Bland. Was I using metaphor or simile? If you’re not sure, you’re not alone. For some, writing comes naturally, even without the academic background to explain the technicalities of good writing. Reedsy has compiled a list of 33 literary devices and techniques that are guaranteed to add more flavor to your writing.
Make your characters interact with their environment.
Rather than simply describe what your character sees, smells, or hears, have them engage with their setting. Your character can have an emotional reaction to their environment, such as the experience of nostalgia as they return to their birthplace. Describe the actions of other characters in the scene that are occurring in the background. When characters interact with their environment, it not only enhances setting, it makes for a more interesting read. The opening of Melissa Yi’s medical mystery novel Code Blues introduces Montreal with abrasive originality:
“I pictured the city of Montreal as a woman with bleached blonde hair and a generous, lopsided bosom, who would draw me into her perfumed embrace and whisper, “Bienvenue.” Instead, I found a skinny brunette with a cigarette jammed in the corner of her mouth who turned around and bitch-slapped me. At least, that’s what it felt like […] Last night, it took me seven hours to drive here from London, Ontario. When I hit the Quebec border, I could hardly make out the blue and white sign declaring “Bonjour!” and the fleur-de-lis flag fluttering against the dusky, grey-indigo June sky, but I noticed that my Ford Focus began bouncing over more frequent potholes. “
It becomes clear from the protagonist’s reflections that her romantic and idealized version of Montreal is far from reality. In effect, the rude awakening she experiences informs readers of her character. Montreal is a harsh let down for the protagonist, who personifies the city as a rude, cigarette-smoking woman. The French words and fleur-de-lis flag help readers visualize Quebec, but overall, the focus in this passage is how Montreal makes the main character feel like a foreigner. The Ford Focus is not simply driving down the road, it is bouncing over potholes. One imagines the main character bouncing along in her seat, jarred by both the road and the city itself.
Combine setting and symbolism.
Symbolism contributes to the deeper meaning behind setting. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry represents home for Harry Potter, an orphan who is barely tolerated by his muggle relatives, the Dursleys. In Peter Pan, the island of Neverland symbolizes eternal youth, magic, and adventure. Using setting to evoke symbolism makes that particular place or era memorable.
An excellent example of symbolic setting is featured in Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink. In the early 17th century, Ester moves from Amsterdam to London, where she spends years without venturing outside the city walls. The Great Plague has dawned and London is a cesspool of death and disease. The day Ester travels down the River Thames, the countryside seems to her an entirely new world:
“At water’s edge, where the tide must flood and recede, abundant weeds bent in the direction of the current. A silent, stunning freshness. Never had Ester felt a place to be so alive. Birds darted at the verge of the river and the water was starred here and there with insects that seemed to walk on its very surface. All about them was green … If she could unmake her entire life and remake it, she thought, she’d do so in an instant- she’d stand and dive from this boat, plunge into this slow-moving river, and find herself as alive as the water and the air.”
Imagine escaping plague-ridden London and experiencing the English countryside for the first time. It is not difficult to do so with Rachel Kadish’s writing. To Ester, even the birds in the trees and insects floating on the water are a marvel. In one paragraph, the author presents the River Thames as a symbol of life and rebirth for her protagonist. Descriptions of greenery and animals convey life, while the flowing river represents freedom from the confines of the disease-stricken city.
Ensure settings are consistent.
Be certain that the details of your setting match up. If your character lives north of 56th Street, you have to stick to that. Your editor would likely catch the mistake if you wrote that your character started walking west to 56th Street. Even if they miss it, a detail-oriented reader certainly won’t. But if you want your setting to be realistic and detailed, how do you keep track of it all? You can write summaries for each setting in your novel for reference. Within those summaries, include specific Point A-to-Point B directions (ex. How your character gets to his/her place of work). If the setting is particularly complex or detailed, create a map or diagram.
Do your research.
If your objective is to recreate a real place or point in history, research is crucial. The extent of your research depends on the level of accuracy you wish to convey. Some historical fiction, for example, is more fiction than history. Other novels of that genre aim to remain as close to historical fact as possible, often requiring over a year of solid academic research. On the other hand, if you’re writing a modern-day novel, take advantage of Street View on Google Maps.
Establish what your objectives are in terms of setting accuracy as early as possible. You may think that adhering to facts will limit the creative process, but that is only the case if you make it so. Working with facts can actually spark new creative pathways and ways in which your character can relate to their setting. Note that all your research on setting does not have to make it into your novel.
Other tips on setting:
- Details are essential, yet too much detail can distract readers. It can break up the flow of the plot and become boring if you go on for pages and pages.
- Beware of the anachronism: “a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists.” Anachronisms can be very frustrating to readers, on top of lowering your credibility as a writer. I am still upset that Mel Gibson wore a kilt in Braveheart while portraying William Wallace in the 13th century, even though kilts did not exist until the 1720s. Not even close, people.
- Try visualizing your setting as though you are directing a movie. Scenes in your book turn into film scenes. It’s an interesting creative exercise that can help bring those cherry-on-top visual details to mind.
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Amy works on Author Engagement for Kobo Writing Life. She helps answer author questions and comes up with creative blog content. Amy studied Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa and Publishing at Ryerson University. She has worked as a content author of literature study guides and as an online literature educator.