Writing Tips #3 – Settings

March 30th, 2011 · No Comments »

A well-chosen setting can add a lot of flavour to your story. There are certain books where I can’t remember much of the plot at all, but I can certainly remember the setting and how that setting made me feel. When I think of Huckleberry Finn, I think of the Mississippi River. When I think about Harry Potter, I think of the corridors of Hogwarts.

There are questions you have to ask yourself when deciding where to set your story:

Should this story take place in the real world?

If the world is different from our real world, how?

Is your story set in the city or the country? Is it set mostly inside or outside?

What locations will feature in your story?

Will the setting of your story change, and if so, what will the new setting be to create the most amount of contrast?

Remember you are making all of these decisions so that your story will be more dramatic. It is dramatic to set a ghost story in a large old mansion, with creaking staircases and mysterious basements and attics. It is not as dramatic to set a ghost story in a modern one-bedroom apartment .

Features that help when determining setting are:

Weather – extreme weather conditions, whether they be cold or hot, can help express how your character is feeling. The weather might express how a character feels but it might be more interesting if the weather is in complete contrast. If my main character is feeling upset, I might make her face a bright beautiful day, just to rub in how awful she feels and how she can’t enjoy the sunshine.

Buildings – small buildings can help make your character and reader feel trapped, whereas large spacious buildings might make them feel insignificant, overwhelmed or lost in life. Think of light quality – by describing small dirty windows with light struggling through, you create a very distinctive mood.

Familiar or Foreign – a familiar setting is one your characters might know well, but for dramatic purposes it might be more interesting to transport them to a new location.

Some other questions you might ask are:

Where does my main character feel safe?

Where would they feel the most unsafe?

In good story telling you will take them on a journey away from their safe place, and in order to get back to it, they must pass through the unsafe place.

Describing Things

Some writers like to use a lot of description when it comes to setting a scene. As a writer, and a reader, I think less is more. Readers have their own experiences, memories, and way of seeing the world, so I think the job of the author is to put the essential framework out there that then allows the reader to join the dots and colour in the picture themselves. I love the fact that every reader has a different experience with a book. Having said that, there’s nothing worse than having something under-described, or having something monumental not described until too late and the world you have been visualising is suddenly all wrong forcing you to do some hasty renovations with your mind.

It’s important to list all the features of your setting that are important to the story. For example, it is kind of important in the story of Rapunzel to mention that the tower she lives in is really tall and has no doorway or steps. Aside from that, you then have to think of creative ways of describing things so that readers will picture what you mean instantly. A great way is to use metaphor and simile (saying something is like, or is the same as, something else). Using the Rapunzel example, you might describe her tower like this: Rapunzel’s tower, though narrow and round like a lighthouse, shot up in the sky to dizzying heights more like a skyscraper.

But descriptive writing is a whole other subject matter.

An author should be able to picture all the settings of their story in detail. They should know the layout of important buildings. They should know what the backyard looks like, what the streets look like etc. Some advice I can give is to create your world using building blocks from the real world. For instance, I might take my grandmother’s old federation house, I might then move some of the rooms around so that the inside layout is more like my parent’s home. I might then transport the house into the backyard of my friend’s house because their backyard is really spacious, but then I might move the house into a different suburb I’ve passed through when out driving. The end result is not something anyone will recognise, but is easy for me to picture. Your setting has to match your story and the characters you are writing about, and as a writer you have the liberty to create or change anything, but it makes things a lot easier to picture in your own mind, and then pass that image onto others, if you are using places you have actually visited. Even if you are creating a fantasy world, you can modify real settings.

I guarantee that if you don’t really know what the setting of your story looks like, the reader will feel the same way.

Another bit of advice is to draw maps. They don’t have to be too detailed and they don’t have to be in scale. Draw a map of the town where your story is taking place and mark all the settings you will be using. Draw a floor plan of the house where your characters live, including all the rooms. These maps will help you when writing your story.

That’s all for now folks.

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