Kendra here: Roberta connected with me on Facebook after realizing we shared an agent and had sold to the same publisher. Now we chat frequently about all things writing.
“Everything happens somewhere.” – Pieter Haag
Every writer knows the basic elements of story – plot, character, and setting. Writers spend endless hours strategizing, building timelines, and staging action to create a dramatic scaffold. We carefully layer in intrigue, suspense, and crises to challenge characters we have lovingly shaped and sculpted into multi-dimensional beings that breathe and bleed on the page. We take great care to shade and nuance our protagonists and antagonists, giving them the depth and substance they need to bear the weight of the story we have constructed around them, and endow them with strength and frailty and the power to change. And all of this is staged in a world within a world – one we hope our readers will never want to leave.
So what about setting? In some genres, setting takes on such a significant role that it can be considered a character in its own right. This is particularly (and most obviously) true in science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels. Because the reader is less (or completely) unfamiliar with the time and place, it is incumbent upon the author to go to greater lengths to cue in the story context. This is known in genre speak as worldbuilding.
One could argue that all scene-staging is basically worldbuilding, no matter what the setting or the genre. The same descriptive techniques apply – the difference lies in the details. When a writer is working in a contemporary, real-world environment, it is easy to rely on shared common knowledge to fill in the blanks, so to speak. This is practical, even reasonable. But we can do better than one-dimensional backdrops constructed from universal references in the collective consciousness of our audience. We can build them a better world.
A simple trick to bringing an every-day setting to life is to ask yourself to examine the setting more deeply. Try thinking of a particular time and place the same way you think about character development. For example, try using character profiling tools to develop the setting in your novel:
In the same way we consider the origin, gender and age of a character, we can also determine the identity of a setting – in what country, region, or locality does my story take place? In what generation (period or era) of its lifetime does the story unfold? What is the cultural makeup of the setting? Descriptive clues such as significant world events, technology level, clothing, traditions and language anomalies (such as dialects, accents or slang) can be incorporated to convey this context to your readers.
Just like people, setting has physical traits. Take into account and describe the geography, topography, and architecture appropriate to the identity of your setting – is it rural or urban? Agricultural or industrial? What do the landscapes and cityscapes look like? Are there certain idiosyncrasies that are specific to this time and place? What prominent features, flaws or color schemes are present? This type of physical description can apply to both interior and exterior setting, so long as it is in keeping with the time and place in which your story takes place.
Characters have unique behaviors and motivations, and so do settings. When dealing with time, social and political conventions shape the temperament of a place as much as the characters themselves. So does the relative advancement (technology, literacy, etc.) of the era.
Similarly, both natural and man-made environments have moods – ambiance that is created by the impacts of human or animal life cycles, war, weather, seasonal changes, temperature, structural materials, room décor, furnishings, etc. Every environment is shaped and affected by forces acting upon it the same way people are affected by their experiences. Take the time to examine how your setting behaves and why – is it static, or does it change during the life of the story? Is it benevolent, or hostile? How, and why? Sensory detail is particularly effective here – especially touch and smell.
All characters have backstory – the life events that have made them who they are when we meet them in your novel. Setting has history too – both physically and culturally. Just like character backstory, it doesn’t all belong in the book. But the better you understand the setting the more believable it will be in your book.
You may find that not all of the information these techniques help you gather is appropriate to the time and place of your setting, but it’s worth giving the exercise a try. Treating your setting as a living entity can help you create a fictional world that feels so real your reader will be convinced they have literally been there. It doesn’t get any better than that.
What makes setting come alive for you? Do you have a favorite fictional world?
Roberta Trahan is a former journalist and marketing consultant who always wanted to write a book. And so she did. Her epic fantasy debut THE WELL OF TEARS was published in 2012 by 47North. The second installment in The Dream Stewards series is set for release in May 2014.
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