3 Must-Know Ways for Creating Meaningful Settings in Your Novel

3 Must-Know Ways for Creating Meaningful Settings in Your Novel

Sad but true, setting in novels is mostly ignored. It’s as if writers feel they must sacrifice attention to setting on the altar of getting the story moving, but nothing could be further from the truth. The settings in your novel serve a number of very powerful functions in your scenes, and that’s why setting is an essential pillar of novel construction. Without setting, how can you have a story?

Where Should Your Scenes Take Place?

Many manuscripts by novice writers contain scenes that appear to be taking place in the void of space. The writer seems so intent on conveying dialogue or explaining about the characters that he forgets to mention where his characters happen to be.

And then there are other manuscripts in which setting is occasionally mentioned in passing but almost as an afterthought. In these instances, it’s as if the writer knows he should say something about where his characters are but feels it is so unimportant, he just throws out a few token lines that sketch a vague description.

Or in trying to portray a character in his ordinary life, the writer repeatedly puts him in boring places like restaurants and coffee shops. This is a fast way to dull any scene.

Writers who view settings in such ways miss out on a great opportunity to bring a novel to life. The more real a place is to readers, the easier it is for them to be transported there to experience the story.

3 Key Points When Considering Settings in Your Novel

1. Show Settings Through the Eyes of Your Characters

Fire in Fiction Donald MaassIt is impossible to powerfully capture a place via objective description—at least to capture it in a way that readers will not skim. Only through the eyes and heart of a character does place come truly alive” (Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction).

You may not have thought about setting in this way, but it’s all about the POV character. Each person reacts differently to a specific setting. If you and a group of your friends traveled to a place you’d never been, you would each notice and be curious about different things. So too your POV character should be noticing and reacting to the settings in your novel based on who she is and how she views her world.

2. Choose Settings That Trigger Emotion in Your POV Character

Think about places in your past that are emotionally charged for you. Recalling specific places that have emotional triggers may help you come up with such places for your characters.

Let’s say your protagonist has just had a fight with her mother over the man she plans to marry. She might visit her childhood home, or go sit in the bedroom in her parents’ house in which she spent her childhood. There, she might remember the vicious fights her parents had before they divorced. She might, at that moment, feel a strong determination to never be like her mother. Or she may suddenly be afraid her marriage may end up just like her parents’.

The place she is in can be a great tool to increasing her inner conflict, which is what you want. Inner conflict emotionally drives the character toward her visible goal in your story, so anything that can “stir up the waters” is going to be worthwhile. If she instead goes to Starbuck’s after having a fight with her mother, she may just order her Americano coffee, blow it off, and get on with her day—and not experience the intense emotions a more personal setting would spark.

3. Determine Setting Based on the “High Moment” in Your Scene

Setting should be determined by the high point of the scene. Stop and think what main plot point or character insight you are going to reveal in each scene.

For example, you may plan to show your main character having a fight with her boyfriend over her unwanted pregnancy. You could stage the argument in a restaurant. Fine. But what if you stage the argument in front of a preschool or a hospital nursery ward, where she is visiting a friend who just had a baby? What if this character is conflicted about aborting, and she’s surrounded by cute laughing toddlers? Or screeching babies needing to be fed and changed and cared for? Depending on your plot and character arcs, these settings could add to the tension and hit home the high moment of your scene in a more powerful way.

Just as setting has shaped who you are, let the settings in your novel shape your characters and influence them. Create the settings in your novel with a purpose, and you’ll tell a more powerful story.

Tell me your opinion: What novels come to your mind that contain settings that are emotionally charged for the characters?

3 Must-Know Ways for Creating Meaningful Settings in Your Novel

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About C.S. Lakin | @cslakin

C. S. Lakin is the author of sixteen novels and three writing craft books. Her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive gives tips and writing instruction for both fiction and nonfiction writers. If you want to write a strong, lasting story, check out her new release The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, part of The Writer’s Toolbox Series, which provides a foundational blueprint that is concise and practical and takes the mystery out of novel structure.

Comments

  1. It’s very true how some authors forget this. I can only see their story through their eyes. If you can’t picture what is going on, it stunts the story’s progress.

  2. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Susanne!

  3. thomas h cullen says:

    The local woodland. Vicarage Road. Springhill Lane. The Tesco, in the Mander Centre. The HMV store, nearby, in that very same Centre..

    Being in each of these usual places, at the same usual times I’m in them, how I think from usual place to place and usual time to time will be different. Always the same, but different.

    Were reality turned on its head, however, and I was forced to “remain” in whichever one of these usual places, for an exceptionally long period of time, how I’d then think and behave would be 100% indistinguishable from any of the others under the same circumstances.

    I’m now beyond places, and their “identities”.. All now that I have the effort for is to be the very opposite of being reality itself: ever updating, ever incorporating, ever reflecting, ever building upon oneself.

    ‘The Representative’ does have its settings; it does have its characters, who are drawn towards somewhere, whatever the personal reason..

    But I haven’t written anything more since! The reason being that I intend for this fiction, for these settings, for these characters and these raison d’etres to be finally what no other fiction has ever accomplished being.

    My golden rule, when communicating, is to be the other person.. On the screen, whether this website, a Gmail or a Hotmail box, what needs to be seen and read by them? Out with what feels right, or what gets me emotionally charged.. Just what needs to be seen? (Because that’s how robotic, and cold and detached reality actually is.)

  4. Funny, I just popped over from Live. Write. Thrive. You make excellent points, as usual. I also believe if you can evoke the five senses with your setting you’ll put your character more firmly in the scene. I love writing about setting, though since I write psychological thrillers mainly I dial it back it bit so as not to slow down the pace.

    • Good point about genre. That will determine how much you put in. But with every genre, you can enhance your story by using what I call “connected settings”–places that evoke emotional response in your character. We want as much conflict, inner and outer, in our stories, and by having setting be just one more component that generates tension/conflict (externally with the weather, for example, or the culture as well as internally), our novels will be enriched.

  5. I loved this article, Suzanne!

    I find #1 to be especially pertinent. I’ve read so many books where I wouldn’t know who the POV character was if the author hadn’t blatantly told me. And that’s sad! Our characters should be original and easily identifiable. By having them notice certain objects in a setting, readers can begin to distinguish them from the rest of the cast.

    I actually just wrote a similar tip in my article, The Ultimate Guide to Nailing Your Character’s Appearance (http://bit.ly/1H8r7NJ). I wanted writers to know that a character’s physical description will change based on who is giving it. At the end of the day, it’s all about perspective!

    Thanks again for this excellent post!

    • Thanks. I go into character description a lot in The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, and one thing I try to point out is that writers who spend a lot of time describing hair, clothing, eye color, etc. (even from the POV character’s perspective) is shallow. Cutting out pictures in magazines to picture characters is fine to a point, but misses the point. Every character coming onto a scene does need a bit of description, but the more it can be colored by the POV character’s emotion and the things noticed have some significance (reveals something about the POV character’s mind-set, beliefs, opinions, etc.), the better.

  6. Janie Fox says:

    An old novel immediately came to mind for me: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. I lived this emotional story about a boy who worked hard and saved to buy a pair of coon dog and trained them to hunt. From the first word to the last, this novel is very powerful.

  7. C.S.–
    All good suggestions here. I would just add that in establishing setting, writers do well to think in terms of what readers can be assumed to know. In my forthcoming suspense novel, Deep North, the opening is experienced through the perceptions of a housekeeper returning to her employer’s (supposedly) empty house. The handful of details I provide are chosen on the basis of how I think my reader will flesh out the rest of the setting: a flagstone patio and French doors, a china pheasant centerpiece on a table in a dining room with two breakfronts, a living room with groups of furniture resting on oriental rugs. If I’ve done it right, very few words are involved, but the scene is completed by the reader’s imagination.

    • That’s a good point, Barry. I always feel it’s good to assume some/many readers may have no idea about a particular place and so by revealing setting through the POV character’s eyes, enough has to come through to paint a picture. I use the example of New York City in my book The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. Most people in the Western world have some idea about NYC from TV, movies, news, etc., and even if they’ve never been there, they can picture it to some extent. But NYC is going to feel and appear differently to each person, and so all that really matters is how the POV characters sees the place.

  8. For me, the locations in Wuthering Heights are emotionally charged.

  9. This was very insightful. I think it’s so common to overlook or forget about setting because first-time novelists in particular are so preoccupied with creating realistic, captivating characters and crafting a plot that’s engaging and exciting that they disregard setting. They don’t realize that when the reader is trying to visualize what they’re reading in their mind, they might see a great character experiencing something exciting, but it’ll be happening in a dull, gray environment.

    Describing setting is one of the funnest things to write. You’re essentially showing you’re reader what you want them to see, which gives you the opportunity to be creative and lend your novel more authenticity. I love describing rooms, the things in the rooms, wear and tear on furniture, knickknacks on shelves and end tables, photos, frayed rugs, the way that dust seems to sparkle in sunlight that streaks between blinds… The potential is limited only by the writer’s imagination. And many times I write and describe settings that I’ve seen before in my own life. They’re not usually verbatim, but I use my own experiences as either inspiration or perhaps like a template, a starting point from which I branch out to fabricate a unique, interesting, authentic world.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  10. Maria Brown says:

    Having a meaningful setting in a novel would be a good action. I believe it will help in making a reader to be more interested on it.

  11. I thought my settings were ok, I described what my character saw and what was important to her and the story. But I keep getting told that I need more setting. What to do?

    • Best advice? Get a critique done. I do 200+ critiques a year and help writers see how to put in just the right setting details to make a scene come alive without dragging down the pacing or story action. It’s hard to know what you might need to improve on or how to improve it without a writing coach. Having a writing coach will save you months or years of struggling to figure out how to improve your writing. So I hope you’ll think about this.

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