Creating Unforgettable Settings

As writers, we often underestimate the power of setting. Who didn't want to visit the Hundred-Acre Wood? How much of our Bilbo-love is wrapped up in Hobbiton, my precious? And whatever you might think of the Twilight series, the ho-hum town of Forks became a little more interesting because it was the perfect home for Meyer's vampires. In every genre, the right setting, well-written, is an invaluable piece of the falling-in-love-with-a-book puzzle. To explore this a bit more, I'm introducing a series on Creating Unforgettable Settings. Today's tip:

Choosing the Right Setting

In college I had a button that said Waiting for Mr. 'He'll Do'. I pinned it to my bedroom bulletin board because, despite the chuckles it gave me, I was a little embarrassed to wear it. (enter Non-Lawyer Spokesperson stating that my husband is babe-a-licious and in no way did I settle when I picked him). When it comes to writing, we jump through all kinds of hoops to draw our characters perfectly, to make sure our plotlines are flawless with no holes or inconsistencies. The setting, on the other hand, is often an afterthought. No more Mr. He'll Do, people. Here are some tips for strengthening your story by choosing just the right setting.


1. First of all, if the story really could take place anywhere, don't over-think it. Keep it simple, because in stories like these, the setting truly is just background. However, there should be places within the general setting that are important to the character. Melinda's janitorial closet in Speak. Or the forest outside District 12 for Katniss in The Hunger Games. Those sacred places should reveal something about the hero: her desires or fears, her true character, her
 Achilles' heel. When individualizing your setting so it reflects upon your characters, ask yourself these questions: Which specific part of the setting is most important to them? Why? What should that area reveal about them? Build your setting around the characters and their conflict and you'll create a place that readers will want to re-visit.

2. Make sure your setting comes fully-stocked with challenges, because…let's be honest: the perfect world actually sounds pretty boring. Characters need problems to overcome, and the setting is a natural vehicle for conflict. Look at Middle Earth. Black, chasm-ridden mines. Midge-filled marshes. The Paths of the Dead. When deciding on a setting, choose one that makes sense for your characters but one that also makes things difficult in some way—specifically difficult for your hero, if possible. Is he afraid of heights? Throw some skyscrapers or narrow mountain passes in there. Does he suffer from seasonal allergies? Set the story in spring. Specifically design your setting to complicate your hero's life, and it won't fall flat.

3. One of the most important aspects of a strong setting is your character's emotional connection to it. The stronger a character's connection to her world, the stronger a reader's connection will be to that world. To strengthen this connection, first choose a setting that perfectly fits your character, then show the character interacting with that setting. For example: South Dakota isn't on my list of places to visit, but Laura Ingalls Wilder was smitten with it, and through her eyes, I could see its charm. However, a negative connection can be just as strong as a positive one. In Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved, lead character Sara Louise hates living on Rass Island. But in describing how detestable it is, Paterson creates a crystal clear view of the place, and the reader comes to realize that the setting is only ugly to Sara Louise because she's so miserable herself. Describe your setting through the point of view of your character—its beauty or ugliness, prosperity or poverty, desirability or loathsomeness. Show how the main character is emotionally-connected to the setting and your reader will share that connection as well.

34 comments:

Misha said...

Great tips. Thanks for posting them.

:-)

Lale said...

Great advice- I'm definitely copying this to my writing folder. :)
I must say that I wholeheartedly agree on not complicating the setting if it could be set anywhere- and from my reading experience, I think this also applies to your character's background in some ways. For example, (non British) people seem to frequently set their books in/have characters from the UK, which is often quite irrelevant- especially when they don't even speak in an authentic way! It's done beautifully in some recent books (such as Anna and the French Kiss) but actually made me dislike others.

Matthew Rush said...

I love this post. Probably because the setting was the entire inspiration for my novel, and I hope that I've done as well as I can at making into a character of it's own.

Charlie Pulsipher said...

Thank you for the reminder. I may have forgotten to have my setting antagonize my main character the last couple chapters. Time to throw in some swamps, exploding flowers, and bees.
Funny Stuff I Write

Bish Denham said...

Oh, well put Becca!

Deb said...

Thanks for this! I just read NEVERMORE by Kelly Creagh. She had/has setting down in spades.

Colene Murphy said...

Thanks for this! Great insight and you're so right. Setting can never be taken lightly.

Melissa Alexander said...

Oooh, I love setting. To me it's as important as my other characters, because it *is* a character. Setting helps set mood, and it adds a delicious later of realism to the pie. I also use it to show a lot about my characters -- how they view their setting changes as they change.

Angela Ackerman said...

IMO, one of your biggest writing strengths is your ability to craft vivid, compelling settings and worlds. Thanks so much for sharing all this with us.

Angela

AubrieAnne said...

This is great. I fully believe that the setting should eb a character within itself and should add something special to the story, but at the same time, it is not something you really have to overthink.

AubrieAnne @ http://whosyoureditor.blogspot.com/

Holly Ruggiero said...

Great reminder that our perfect wherever needs to have problems too.

writtenwyrdd said...

Great post and thanks for sharing! I've always considered the setting, particularly in speculative fiction, to be a character in and of itself. In the spec fic genre, it's always important (unless you are writing a romance, which can underplay the world to a large degree).

Heather said...

This is awesome! I'm kind of odd. My stories usually develop out of a setting so it becomes integral to the story, almost like another character.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

This is in my top five Bookshelf Muse favorites - love it!! Sooooooo helpful. Thank you! :-)

LM Preston said...

World building is one of my most favored parts of the writing process.

Jamie Grey said...

Fantastic post! I struggle with finding the right balance between too much and too little setting. This tips will be really helpful!

V.R. Leavitt said...

Great tips!!

Susan R. Mills said...

Setting is so important. These are great tips here.

Lisa Gail Green said...

This is such a helpful post!! Thank you. You put into words things that have been swimming around in my head.

The Golden Eagle said...

Thanks for these tips on setting!

Becca Puglisi said...

I'm so glad this is resonating with more than a handful of people, lol. The setting is usually one of the first things that come to me with a new story, but I know it's not high on the priority list for a lot of people. Shannon Hale and Shannon Shinn are masters at creating vivid settings, imo. Thank you, Deb, for pointing out another author whose name isn't Shannon...

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Setting is definitely not one of my strengths. And if it weren't for this blog, I'd be doomed. ;)

Great advice, as always.

C.R. Evers said...

Great post! I especially like the part about the characters emotional attachment to the setting. Great point.

Jenny said...

This is great! I think that you've made a *really* important point re: the setting doesn't have to be completely made up or exotic--Laura Ingalls Wilder was a great example.

kathrynjankowski said...

This is so helpful. Thanks!

Elle Strauss said...

Thanks for the reminder--I'm working on setting at the moment, so great timing!

Mysti said...

I agree that setting isn't one of my biggest strengths either. It's often an afterthought--more distinctly--good minute descriptions of setting are not my strong suit.

Really want to work on that-thanks!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

You are so right! Setting is sooo important. I carry a travel journal with me when I travel so that I can jot down details. I also take a camera with me. It's a great way to record details...

Laura Pauling said...

Depends on the story. Some settings demand to be likened to a characters and others need to be background. It's important to know for your story, which it is. Great post!

Traci Kenworth said...

I agree! The perfect setting grows out of the character. For me, you can't sit them just anywhere, they need a place to call home, somewhere to cherish, and fight for.

Amanda the Aspiring said...

These are really helpful pointers! Thanks for posting. =)

Julie Musil said...

I love writing about settings! I don't know why, but it's just this thing about me. I have to be careful not to write too much about it. These are such great tips, thanks!

A Mom's Choice said...

I love your site. Could you put a email subscription for feedburner? Good post, I agree the character needs an obstacle or the story will be boring.

beyondtourism said...

Good post. I have say setting (description) is not my strong point. But this has given me some great ideas for my novel and how to use my setting, a colony ship in space, to great effect.

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