Everyone who has taken an English literature class or a writing course knows about setting. Setting is the place and the time an action takes place. It is the where and the when of a story. It is what takes a reader to your world and has them experience it.
However, as a writer, setting is not that simplistic. Images of place are difficult to translate from your brain to the page. Should every detail seen be written, every sound, taste, and smell be shared? If you set your novel in a real place, how accurate must you be? Can I describe the street where my character lives verbatim, especially the house I saw which is a perfect match to where he/she lives in my mind’s eye? How should I approach setting? How much setting is too much? Is there a tried-and-true formula to doing this?
At a conference in which I recently participated as a panelist, a gentleman from the audience approached me to ask those very questions posed above. He was rather anxious, trying to find a formula he could latch onto in order to write the perfect setting, and he was having difficulties trying to balance his descriptive sections to his action. I answered that every writer struggles with this, and tried to cover all his questions as follows:
Is there a tried-and-true formula to writing setting?
My answer, based on my experience (and I am talking about mine alone), is no. You have to find what works for your narrative style, for your genre, and for your work in progress. Every novel is different, every place you set your novel feels different, smells different, sounds different. You are the creator of your world (for fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal) or are a witness to your world. Make sure you know it, understand it, visualize it, but, especially, learn to explain it. The explanation is the hardest part. Find words that create images rather than writing two sentences to describe what you want the reader to visualize in one.
In a scene from my novel, The Coin, my characters are in a car chase through a road. My setting? Well, I worked with two at a time: the car they were in and the narrow road outside. Why two? Let me show you:
The car gave another sickening lurch, but this time the rear was slammed sideways. Gabriela’s head smashed against the window, her eyesight blurred, and she tasted the rising bile in her mouth. To compound her horror, the car was now out of control, heading straight for a fifteen-foot drop. There, a front-line of grotesquely shaped trees seemed to be eagerly extending their gnarled branches in hopes of grabbing them. Gabriela closed her eyes and thought, we’re dead. We’re going to die.
When I wrote this, I needed to show that what was happening inside the car was as important as what was happening outside. I broke the entire sequence, from beginning of that scene to the end, picked and chose what part of the setting I needed to include (and where), and what part of that setting would complement the action. I needed the right details to add to the suspense rather than detract from it. By sprinkling images of the setting into my character’s reaction became critical to understanding her fear, and for my audience to visualize what she was experiencing.
In my current work-in-progress, about Detective Nick Larson, at the very beginning of the novel, my character is making a concentrated effort to stay emotionally detached from the crime scene he is about to witness. He has his reasons for doing so, which the reader will find out a bit later on in the chapter. How could I achieve this? By bringing in a smidgeon of setting:
Nick surveyed the glass enclosure, delaying and preparing for the inevitable. The sunroom used space and light efficiently, especially in a backyard as big as a thimble and surrounded by canyons of brick and steel. The town homes and apartment buildings in this part of town were notoriously joined like Siamese twins, and every backyard watched a mirror image of itself barely ten feet away. No privacy, Nick thought. He’d rather hide within the solid walls of his apartment rather than be exposed to hundreds of spying eyes, lurking ten feet away behind tasteful window treatments near the horizon.
After thinking about how to write the scene, I described an impression of the area through my detective’s eyes. Did I need to describe the backyard thoroughly? No. Why? It wasn’t key to the crime scene or the crime itself. How did I come up with this brief description? I visualized, using my own reactions in observing things, especially when I can’t concentrate, or if I want to avoid an issue. What I usually do is I stare into space and capture only the details necessary to give my impressions of the whole. That’s what I gave my detective.
As a writer, first read what others have done on setting, as well. Go back to the novels you loved, the ones in the genre you are writing in, and dissect them. Where does the author interject his/her setting...at the very beginning, a chapter in? Does he/she use setting leading to the introduction of a character and his environment? How often do descriptive passages break up action? What details, and how much of those setting details find their way into the narrative? What setting details are important to the plot? Why do those details complement these passages?
At a Margie Lawson workshop I attended a while ago, I found what helped some writers in their works-in-progress was to highlight setting and action in different colors. That doesn’t work for me, but it is not a bad idea to do at the beginning. Seeing pages of green (setting) with a scratch or two of pink (action) at a stretch is not something you want everywhere, especially if you are writing a thriller. If you are writing a historical, you may want to see half and half. If you are a pseudo-Dickens, or an Austen, or a Hardy, well, you would have more than a couple of pages of green. But, then, audiences now are not much into a plethora of setting descriptions, especially in contemporary novels, which brings me to my other point…
Stay true to your world
I always think that those authors who create their own world have a slight advantage over those writers who set their work in the real world. If you create your setting, you don’t have to worry about street placements, surroundings, traffic patterns, or how long it would take a subway ride from Times Square to Queens Boulevard in NYC. You don’t have to Google map your setting. You don’t have to spend your vacation in the city where you set your novel in order to describe it accurately. You invent your own streets, your own surroundings, your own panorama.
However, there is a caveat, and this applies to all settings, real or invented, but especially invented. If you create your world, stay true to it. Make sure you have copious notes on what you created, where you created it, how it came to exist, what it looks and feels like, how you move around it, what structures are where, if there are magical elements to it, and why do things react the way they do. If you don’t, and you begin contradicting yourself by making setting mistakes, your readers will catch it. Trust me, they will. And you may find that those readers desert you.
In my second novel, The Book of Hours, part of my setting is in northern California and the other is in London. It had been years since I had last visited London, but to make it more of a challenge, I set the novel in 1997, so I had to be not only accurate in the setting details, especially changes in the topography, but I also had to be careful I was not describing details from 2014 London. I had to verify where everything was, but especially when everything was, including the New Scotland Yard building and the area surrounding it.
All I can say is, thank you, Google Earth.
Tricky one. This is the one area where the gentleman was having a major issue. He was writing a historical fiction novel, where his character’s life and experiences were fictional except when he encountered real historical characters and events. He needed to show the setting of a street where the historical character lived and then describe where his fictional character lived nearby. He wanted to take a house on the street and make it the character’s home.
I told him to be careful with this.
If the area where the historical character lived is still basically the same and has not changed at all, don’t use a house on that street as your own, unless you have permission from the owner to use it. Invent a cul-de-sac where your house sits nearby. Or place it somewhere around the area. For the historical character’s house, you have to be accurate. It’s as if I were to describe a meeting with Hemingway, and describe the Deering Estate instead of Hemingway’s house in Key West. Stay true to history, but make your own for your characters.
Learn to be self-critical
Now the dissection comes for your own work. Where are you placing your setting details? As you read your words, do you find that you stumble because you created an obstacle for the reader to stop and climb over? Was it too many details in the middle of an action scene? Too little to set the scene? Are you giving the wrong setting details, describing too much of the interior of a bathroom, when all you need is to give minor details of the inside? Does the setting you are describing work with the world you created? Are you giving important impressions of the setting at the right time? Did you choose the wrong details to complement your plot?
Even more importantly…
Show your work to others
This, I think, is the hardest part. This is where the editing of your work comes in…painfully so. Learn from whatever constructive criticism is given to you. Remember that what you don’t see in your work, others will. Learn to discard, and revise, but also, learn to keep as well. Not everything has to be edited out of your narrative. The ultimate choices are yours, especially for the world you have envisioned.
Maria Elena Alonso-Sierra has a Master's in English and taught literature at the university and middle school levels. She is currently a full-time writer.