November 30, 2008

The Importance of Setting in Your Novel

If you're finished with Thanksgiving leftovers and ready to get back to some serious writing tips, here's my offering.

When I was teaching for Writers Digest School many of my students were good at dialogue but
often forgot to let the reader know and “see” where the conversations and action were taking place. Setting consists of the time, place and mood of a story and can help shape your story idea.

You always need to know where your story is taking place. Is it going to be in a real place? If so, it is important that you know everything about that place so a reader won’t be thrown out of the story by something being wrong. Believe me, a reader will let you know if your hero or heroine is driving the wrong way on a one-way street.

If the setting is fictional, will it be more vivid than an actual place? My Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series is set in a place much like where I live. However, I changed the name and moved the town of Bear Creek about 1000 feet higher in the mountains because I wanted better trees. At least that’s what I always say, but what I really wanted was to be able to move the geography around a bit and change some of the places that my characters frequent. (And, unfortunately, with the exception of a few, businesses and restaurants don't seem to last long where I live--the ones I've made up do.)

When making up a place, you definitely need enough details to be convincing. This is particularly true for science fiction and fantasy. The Harry Potter books are probably the best example of unique made-up places that seem real for Harry. I've always thought the setting in those stories reminded me of England during WWII without the war.

Romances often are set in exotic or faraway places, large cities with mansions and expensive restaurants, in unusual and interesting businesses. Settings are extremely important to the plots.

Any historical novel or story should contain lots of period detail, what the houses and furniture are like, the food that’s eaten along with other details of daily living. What happens must be accurate for the time period.

When writing suspense or mysteries, the physical setting should somehow contribute to the suspense. It can darken the mood through the descriptions of the locations and the weather.

Science fiction might be a future far advanced from the present, but it must be believable. Often in science fiction the plot will develop from the setting.

Be careful not to put too much description of the setting in. You want just enough to convey the essence of the place. Years ago I edited a wonderfully written novel about a soldier’s experience in Vietnam during the war. The author wrote pages and pages of description of the jungle, leaf by leaf. It was wonderfully written, but there was just too much. The reader would have been able to “see” the scene with about 1/4 of what was written. Unfortunately, the author was too much in love with his words to get rid of any of them and a wonderful story never found a publisher.

Don’t forget to add weather, smells, and how things feel. Put color into your descriptions.

A writer who does an exceptional job describing Louisiana and other locations, using all the senses to do it, is James Lee Burke. Though his mysteries are dark and often brutal, the descriptions of the places are poetic and lyrical in flavor. William Kent Krueger is another one who describes the setting so well, you feel like you can see it.

The setting should be the back-bone of your story. It can move a plot forward, create atmosphere or tension, and it also can create change in your character. If you think of your novel or story as a movie in your head, viewing the setting of each scene as your character acts and reacts, seeing and experiencing everything through your character’s eyes, that’s what you want to get down on paper in such a convincing manner that the reader will see the same movie.

–Marilyn Meredith

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At December 24, 2008 at 11:25 AM , Blogger Dorinda Ohnstad said...


I agree that setting is important. For some books the setting is almost another character in the book. Definitely something I need to work on more in my WIP, which is set in South Dakota. The setting is unique is is a key component of the novel's premise.

Sometimes setting can be used to highlight the theme of a story. In a short story I recently started, I purposely chose Manhattan in the cold of winter, because it worked for the story in a way that sunny Hawaii or somewhere else simply wouldn't work.

At January 8, 2009 at 7:50 AM , Blogger June Rodriguez said...

I have problems bringing my settings from my head to the paper. My first rush to write is concentrated on my characters. So my second writing has to flesh out my setting and other senses.


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