Setting the Scene, Part 2: Elements of a Setting

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by Emilee Newman Bowles

When you talk about a novel’s setting, place usually comes to mind first. But there’s a lot more to a setting than just where it happens. Review this list to see if any of these setting elements need more work in your story (and need to have greater impact on your character development).

Place: Okay, place does matter. Where are your characters? What country, state, or city does the action take place in? Are you in the city, a suburb, a rural countryside? What words will you employ to describe places your characters move through? Grounding the reader in place  at the start of each scene is critical to a vicarious reading experience.

Time: This answers when. If it’s not set in contemporary times, when is it? Past or future? What time of year is it? What season of the year is it? What time of day is it? Will that matter to the action? Make sure this element is clear at the start of every  single scene.

Climate: Summertime in Florida is different thing than summertime in Minnesota. What is the climate like and how can you depict it? Describe how severe weather events like a flood or hurricanes affect your characters. What will a sudden downpour do to their mood or behavior? Remember Dorothy’s experience in The Wizard of Oz ? How will your characters feel, and what will they do when dealing with weather?

Landscapes: What natural landscapes influence your characters’ action? Is there a mountain nearby they like to look at? Are they close to a beach where they go to relax? If they go on a walk, will it be a leisurely stroll or a rugged hike? Do they love the natural landscape around them, or do they hate it?

Landmarks: What buildings are around them? What stores would they shop at? What restaurants would they eat in? Are there bridges, parks, or other man-made or natural landmarks of significance? Is it a busy city filled with traffic lights and street signs or a bucolic setting complete with barns, stables, and farmhouses? Is in the Badlands or the Grand Canyon? How do characters feel when placed in those settings?

Indoors: When your characters are indoors, describe the room. Is it spacious or cramped? What are the furnishings and decorations like? Is it light or dark? Are any aromas evident? Are your characters comfortable there, or do they wish they could leave?

Culture: How does the culture influence your characters? Does anything of political or social significance drive them and their actions? In Seventh Son  by Orson Scott Card, a theological battle between a certain brand of Christianity and the folk magic/beliefs of the time form the central conflict of the novel. This conflict informs who every character is and thus how they interact with and view every other character. Think of the political environment and dialogue in America today vs. when we first set up the government in the 1700s. Views change, how people talk (and when and where and with what tones and agendas), how they view the dialogue and each other all change throughout history. This may be the most important element of your setting because it really  forms your characters.

Knowing not just where  your characters are, but also how  their surroundings inform and affect them, will help you and your readers make sense of the way they navigate the world you’ve created for them.

Do This Now

  1. Consider some of your favorite settings in stories you’ve read. How did the authors draw you into the worlds they created? How were the characters affected? What can you learn from them?

2. If you are writing in a historical setting, take care to research every element listed above to avoid anachronisms and other non sequiturs. Read the first two rules in Elizabeth Crook’s article for some great ideas on how to maintain accuracy and authenticity in your setting details.

3. Details and specifics about any setting can usually be found online. You can find images of what any neighborhood looks like on Google Earth, and images of practically every living thing, ecosystem, or landmark can be found there as well. Use your search engine wisely and check multiple sources to ensure accuracy in your settings. Also see our article with great tips on how and where to do research (so you don’t get mocked for using the possibly-wrong info you found online).

Let’s Hear From You

Have any other tips to share on creating super settings? Did you ever put a book down because settings were unauthentic, too detailed, or too sketchy? Tell us about it.

E Newman BowlesEmilee Newman-Bowles is an intern at Eschler Editing. She is also a college English instructor, a freelance editor, and a stay-at-home mom to three children. For her undergrad she majored in reading as many books as possible (also known as English Literature) and later earned a master’s in writing from the Book Publishing Program at Portland State University. She blogs about books for children and young adults at www.tesseractbooks.com.

 

 

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