How To Choose An Immersive Setting

4 Ways to Choose the Right Story Setting

How To Choose An Immersive Setting

Most writers don’t have too much trouble when it comes to how to choose the right story setting for their books. Middle Earth; Maycomb, Alabama; Hogwarts—it’s often fairly obvious which locations will serve the needs of the story; then it’s just as matter of picking the best one.

But what about the rest of the settings? A small-town high school might be the sensible choice for your YA novel, but you can’t set every scene in the fine arts hallway. What about when your character is at work, on a date, or hanging out with friends? How does she get to and from school? What kind of home does she live in and what does her personal space look like?

While most authors understand how to choose the right story setting for the overall book, they don’t typically put as much thought into the locations for the individual scenes. Yet these decisions are just as important. The setting choices at this level have the power to make or break the story—to simply set the stage or to bring the scene to life by making it meaningful and drawing readers into it.

If you’re hoping to accomplish the latter, consider the following questions when selecting settings at the scene level.

1. What Is the Purpose of This Setting?

Most writers think of the setting as merely the tool that enables us to establish the time and place for readers. But settings can—and should—do so much more. Through the setting, you can also

If you know beforehand which of these things you’d like your setting to accomplish, you can choose a location that will suit your purpose and help you achieve that goal.

For instance, maybe it’s the beginning of your story and you want to set the stage while also including some much-needed characterization for the protagonist. Use a personal setting that will reveal truths about her:

  • Workspace
  • Car
  • Favorite room in her home

For a scene that’s meant to add conflict, consider locations that will cause her stress:

  • The site of a traumatic past event
  • A place that will trigger insecurities
  • A location where she’s likely to see someone she’d rather avoid

Always consider the purpose of the scene—what you can organically accomplish through the setting. Our Setting Checklist can help with this, enabling you to plan ahead what you’d like your setting to do in each scene so you can choose the best locations possible.

2. Which Setting Makes Sense for Your Character?

When choosing settings, it’s always important to keep your character in mind. One location might make sense for your story, but if it doesn’t fit with your character, it will fall flat.

For instance, maybe something important has just happened and it’s time for a reflection moment for your protagonist; you need a place where he can process what has happened and prepare himself for the next step. The first place that comes to mind might be a dock by the lake or a walk through the woods. These are great choices for someone who appreciates nature and needs peace and quiet in order to properly reflect.

Urban and Rural Setting Thesaurus

But what if your character is an urbanite who hates bugs or an extrovert who doesn’t like to be alone? For the former, a solitary ride on the city bus or train might enable him to work through his thoughts. An extrovert’s best reflection time might occur while walking a crowded street or partying with friends at a club.

There are so many setting possibilities for each scene; many of them can feasibly work, but only if they make sense for your character.

3. Which Settings Have an Emotional Pull for Your Character?

Most of the time, identifying your setting’s purpose and making sure it fits for your character will be enough for the location to work for your scene. But some parts of the story need a little more care: highly emotional scenes, scenes that reveal important information, ones that mark a turning point for either your protagonist or the story—these important events can be made more meaningful when they’re set in a place that triggers past memories or impacts the character’s emotions.

In John Grisham’s The Firm, Mitch McDeere learns his house is bugged and his employers have been spying on his family. Now he has to reveal this disturbing information to his wife. Instead of Mitch taking her out to dinner or for a walk, Grisham sets this scene in the one place that makes this news even more impactful: in their house, the site of their violation.

The-Firm-1993-tom-cruise-27898700-1200-802

This is their home, their safe place, the one place in the world where they should be able to be themselves. Setting this revelatory scene in their home adds an emotional punch (and an element of danger) that would have been missing had it taken place elsewhere.

When you’re considering locations for an important scene, brainstorm possibilities with your character in mind. What locations are emotionally loaded in some way for him? Which ones elicit strong positive or negative feelings? Are there any that would provide an emotional contrast to what’s happening in the scene? The answers to these questions can help you come up with the perfect settings for the important events in your story.

Have You Thought Far Enough Outside of the Box?

As with any area of writing, it’s tempting to go with the first idea that comes to mind. In doing so, we often settle for good when, with a little more thought, we could unearth something amazing that could take a scene to the next level. For this reason, when choosing a setting, it’s always good to think past our initial ideas.

Melinda, the lead character in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, finds peace and solace in a janitorial closet at her school. Hope Floats’ Birdee Pruitt is dumped by her husband on a live talk show. In Kiss the Girls, the protagonist is kidnapped and held captive in the ruins of an abandoned plantation—creepy and symbolic.

Speak Hope Floats Kiss the Girls

All of these settings are a bit out of the ordinary. There are many locations where each event could have taken place, but these locales add a little something to each scene while still supporting both the story and the character.

So as you’re choosing settings for the scenes within your story, keep all of this in mind. Know your setting’s purpose. Know your protagonist and what makes sense for him. When it’s appropriate, choose a setting that has significant emotional impact for your character. And always think past your first impulse to see what interesting secondary possibilities arise. If you can consider these questions during the planning process, you’re sure to come up with an intriguing array of settings that will add that extra bit of oomph to each scene and to your story as a whole.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your top consideration in figuring out how to choose the right story setting? Tell me in the comments!

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About Becca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of books for writers—including her latest publication: a second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus, an updated and expanded version of the original volume. Her books are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.

Comments

  1. Carol Baldwin says

    Great post. Saving for my writing class. Thanks!

  2. I’d never really given it a thought before, Becca, but I suppose I choose my settings (I prefer ‘locations’) because they fit the action or the story, then find a suitable real one that I know and can check the details of easily.

    In the novel I’ve just finished, my bad guy needed to go to ground. As he’s a British Pakistani Muslim (the book has ‘honour killing’ as one of its themes – I’m a crime novelist) it seemed fitting that he should go where there’s a large south Asian community where he could lose himself.

    Southall, just west of London, a town near where I grew up, fitted the bill with over half the population being of either Indian or Pakistani origin. I know the ‘feel’ of the place and the area around it well from going there often in my teens, twenties and thirties, as well as more recently.

    Checking views and sight lines using ‘street view’ made sure that I got the details correct. When he ditches the gun he’s used in a canal, I can describe the scene from the point of view of a witness in a way that works, and can’t be argued with by a smartarsed reader who also knows the area.

    Others involved in the crime left the country, so again I took them to somewhere else I’d been that has a Muslim community, Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, so they would be outside EU borders.
    Using routes I knew, I could find locations along their road trip through western Europe to use for scenes. Street view again allowed me to check details to make the whole thing real.

    Get the real bits right, and readers will believe the fiction.

    • becca puglisi says

      This sounds like a great way of writing your locations realistically. Real life settings can be tricky since there will invariably be readers who are familiar with the area and will call an author out (rightly so) for any inaccuracies. This is one of the reasons we wrote our Urban and Rural Setting Thesaurus books—to help out authors who couldn’t get to the place they want to write about. Getting those details right is so important.

  3. I’m sure I don’t give my setting for each scene as much thought as I should…but after reading this I will be more careful and deliberate. When I was asked to do a snowbound romance novella for inclusion in an anthology, I used a real life event (Atlanta snowmageddon) and set it on a normally busy interstate. I succeeded because USA Today called it “a fun twist on the usual snowbound-in-a-cabin romance”.

    I set my stories in small towns because that’s what I know best and I love the dynamics and the opportunities for humor. Such as a grouchy sheriff who couldn’t escape well-meaning citizens giving him advice on his love life.

    Thanks for the great and helpful post, Becca!!

    • becca puglisi says

      I love that you were able to put a new spin on an old type of story! And I agree that when it comes to settings, many authors tend to stick with what they either like or are familiar with. My books are all set in rural places, but I know a lot of people who only write urban settings. Whatever floats your boat ;).

  4. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Becca!

  5. JC Martell says

    Another super blending of Puglisi and Weiland. My WIP is very setting oriented and can’t get enough on the topic. Then mix in a cup of links to Katie’s related posts…… can’t get much better.

    • I agree with JC, I was taking a break from outlining the other day and read a bit in KM’s Structuring, highlighted where she said that setting is a visual frame for the story, it was a great word picture and combined with this article… like light flashing through two facets of a sparkling gem.

    • becca puglisi says

      Katie is the absolute bomb, honestly. I don’t know how she keeps coming up with meaningful and relevant content that hasn’t been done to death, but she always does.

      • I follow your Thesauri partner Angela on Twitter and read your articles linked through her; with me being new to writing… from scratch… learning about setting, and how to get the most out of it, at this early stage is so critical, even if I’m doing broad brush strokes in the outlining process, being aware of the potential will only make the revising easier. Instead of trying to have to shoe-horn it in later because I had no idea it’s true use, or value.

  6. This was a great post. Reading this was like needing something but not knowing that you need it until it’s right in front of your face.

    • becca puglisi says

      It’s interesting that you say this, because I find that this is often how authors respond to information on the setting. It’s just not something that people think overly about, yet it can do so much for a story. Once you start being more deliberate when choosing settings, all of a sudden you start seeing that some choices really are better than others and will do more for the story.

  7. Well this post is timely. My fantasy is set in Greco-Roman type world, and in real life the Romans in Tunisia had underground houses, which was their workaround for the lack of electric fans and air conditioning. An example of this is the “House of the Hunt” in Bulla Regia.

    I used that idea for the home of one of my protagonists, who lives in my version of Roman Tunisia. The first time that all three characters meet to share intelligence, they do so in the third protagonist’s underground library. They come to a terrifying conclusion that their suspects may actually be demons …

    Earlier in the story, when the second protagonist is briefing the first on their enemies, they’re also underground, in a cave. I seem to have reserved subterranean locations for scary revelations. I think I missed the opportunity to incorporate the settings with the impact of those revelations. I’m smacking my forehead here. Good thing I’m still editing 🙂 Thank you, Becca!

  8. This will be really helpful as I’m currently planning a fantasy novel with a lot of moving around. Thanks so much!

  9. Setting is one of my hardest hurtles! Finding the home that speaks to your character is key. Add in the place that’s set, the region it resides in, and stir. That’s how my “Cherry Hill” came together. I hosted a “house party” at a writing forum for other authors to come and play with my characters. In the process, I created the town square, the founding family’s home, and the local lake beach. Add the main character’s church and you have my Cherry Hill settings.

    If the main character doesn’t feel like they fit the setting, go back and think again.

    Thanks for a great post. I’ve saved this one!

  10. Leanna Englert says

    Thanks for giving me so much to think about. It’s too easy to settle for the first setting that comes to mind.

    I was struggling to describe the depressed state of my WIP’s protagonist. She wasn’t suicidal or dramatically depressed, but wanted to isolate and sleep. That’s hard to write without dragging the story down. I decided to contrast her mood to make her feel even worse, so I have sunlight streaming through her bedroom window and the shrieks of children sledding outside. I think it works.

  11. Hi Becca!

    Excellent post! Loved it. Many great pointers here to utilize the settings to their full potential. The examples were very helpful too. We need to milk every scene for all its worth! I have both of your thesauruses on setting already. Now all I have to do is read them! There are SO many things to learn I’m trying to stay organized.

    Thanks

  12. Could I make up a fake town in the real world for my characters to live in, or do I have to use the ones that already exist?

Trackbacks

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