There are three elements that make up every story: people, problems, and places.
To form a good story, those elements need to be in balance, because each one affects the others.
That’s why you need to put as much effort into the places in your story—your setting—as you do for your characters and your plot.
Here are the three best ways to make that effort pay off, so that your setting comes alive.
1. Experience it yourself through all of your senses.
The surest way to write a setting that falls flat is to focus only on what you can see.
Scientists tell us that we get 90% of our information visually, but visuals alone are not enough to transport the reader into your setting. As you describe a setting, take a moment to imagine yourself spending time in that place.
Really put yourself in the moment. Become the character.
What background noises do you hear?
What could your character touch? What does it feel like?
What sensations cross your skin even if you don’t touch anything? Do you feel baking sun, sharp wind, clamminess in the air?
What do you smell? Fresh-baked bread? Garden plants? Expensive perfume? French fries? Wet dogs?
Use all of your senses. Write these things down. Make a list of sensations and incorporate them into your scene.
Here’s an example from my latest book, Forever and a Doomsday. As you read this description, notice how it goes beyond just the visual:
The heat of the vanished summer sun still radiated up from the empty road long after dark, baking the parched blades of grass and shriveled weeds on either side. A glimmer of headlights spread across the black asphalt, bleaching it silver, illuminating the pitted double-yellow lines that stretched into the distance. The long black muscle car roared past, burning-hot exhaust pipes cackling as Hellbringer kicked up a haze of choking dust. Darkness instantly returned to the road, except for the lava-red slits of taillights dwindling into the gloom, like the eyes of a demon descending into the abyss.
Could you feel the temperature? Hear the car driving past? Maybe even taste the dry road dust in the back of your throat?
As you write, use all of your senses. What can your viewpoint character hear, smell, feel, even taste?
2. Use contrast to make your locations pop.
A few years ago, an unpublished author came to me looking for some writing advice. His manuscript kept getting rejected, and he didn’t know why.
He had written a thriller about a hit man going after a list of evil crime bosses. It was an action-packed story, but I noticed a strange problem with the locations in his book.
They were all the same.
Time and again, the hit man would jump over the wall of a bad guy’s richly-appointed estate and start evading security cameras and armed guards to cross the lush grounds. Eventually, he would enter the mansion itself and corner the bad guy.
You’ve heard this story before, I take it. You know how it ends for the bad guy.
Then we were off to another sprawling tropical estate with more security cameras and armed guards . . . And another estate after that. Each mansion got bigger and more luxurious, but they were all essentially the same sort of place.
Don’t make the same mistake.
If so, mix things up. If you happen to have two villains living in mansions (for example), then create a sharp contrast between those mansions. Make one sleek and modern, while the other one is creaky and decrepit. Or better yet, come up with a completely different lair for your villain: a bucolic farm, an industrial complex, maybe a military base.Whatever you do, use contrast to your advantage.
3. Make the setting personal.
The advice that you should “write what you know” is often misused, but it can have a powerful effect on your setting—if you do it right.
Here’s a simple trick that many writers use without even realizing it. If you do it consistently, the results can be amazing:
In every location in your book, put in an object or detail—a building, a tree, a toy, a table, a stretch of road—from your own real life.
It can be something that you currently see on a daily basis, or something from your past, even from your childhood.
Using an element that you have personal experience with gives you something to hold onto as you write.
It becomes easier to describe the rest of the scene, because at least one part of it is already familiar. Best of all, it makes you, the writer, more emotionally invested in the scene. And that alone can lift your writing up to a higher level.
Follow these tips to make your setting come alive.
Every bit of work you put into your setting pays off in the long run. When reviewers gush that your setting seems to be a character in itself, then you know you’re doing a good job.
Remember when movie trailers used to have Voice-Over Guy? Right at the beginning of the trailer, we might fade in on a dark city skyline, and in his gravelly voice, he’d growl something like, “In a world where criminals operate above the law . . .”
Those first three words (“In a world”) are your setting. Your setting is more than just a backdrop. It’s the foundation of your entire story. Use your imagination to make it personal, make it pop, and make it come alive. Your critics will thank you, and your readers will love you for it.
When it comes to setting, what are your biggest challenges?
Do you struggle with the process of describing the setting? Do you have trouble coming up with new and interesting places for your characters to explore? Leave a comment below.
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