09 March 2015

Getting the Setting Right

Setting is one of those elements that every story has. Whether your characters travel across the globe or stay in the same room for the entire story, a setting still exists. It is the place or places where all of the events in the story happen. Depending on your story, setting can play a large role or a small one. It can be a new place your characters adventure to or the same place they've lived all their lives. Once you've chosen your setting, how do you get it across to the reader? How do you make it feel natural and believable?

A lot can go in to choosing the setting for your story. You may know right away where you want it to take place, or it could take you a while to figure out. It can be a real place or somewhere you've made up. Every story requires its own unique setting. But conveying that setting can be another issue entirely. How do you make the reader see what you see when you envision your story? How do you make that place feel real?

Sometimes choosing the setting can seem a lot easier than executing it. For instance, I knew right away where I wanted my book to take place. The hard thing is actually making it feel like it takes place there. Do my characters actually sound like they've lived there all their lives? What information is necessary to get across to the reader?

First, I should probably say that about 90% of my book takes place indoors, where the setting is irrelevant. Well, the outside world is irrelevant, I should say. Every room your character inhabits within a scene still counts as a setting. It may not be necessary to provide every single detail, every piece of furniture or speck of dust, but there should be a general idea of what things look like or how it feels to be in that room. My characters have to deal with a lot of isolation, which works for the story. My problem is that when they actually go out into the real world, am I getting it right?

Sometimes I worry that whatever reference I make to the setting feels forced. Like, if I have my narrator reference a particular landmark, does it feel like I'm just doing it for the reader's sake? Because he's lived in this city all his life and is used to everything (and doesn't care), what actually needs to be said? Maybe I'm just paranoid that every subway ride or walk through Central Park makes it look like I'm trying too hard. But these are things that my characters do. So how do you make these sort of actions feel natural?

There really is no one answer because every story will require something different from its setting. For me, at least, it means making those brief moments where the real world sneaks in feel like a real place. Don't scream the setting at the reader, but hint at it. Make it feel like any place you would go where you live. It can be difficult writing a book that takes place where you don't personally live, but if we restricted ourselves to the setting we know, then we'd miss out on a lot of great story ideas. The important thing is to do your research, and don't worry about it so much. If you try too hard, then it will show. Just let the setting work for you.

How do you make your settings feel natural? Do you typically choose a setting you're familiar with? 


  1. Setting is something I struggle with too. But honestly, in the contemporary books I read, unless they are set somewhere special, like it's an important part of the story, setting isn't something I really notice.

  2. Conveying setting without knocking people over the head with it is tough. Sometimes it only takes a sentence or two to convey a setting, but coming up with those sentences is a challenge.
    Never been on a space ship, so I have to make it up and rely on science fiction movies.

  3. It's difficult for me to write about setting too, which is why my first drafts usually look like a long dialogue of several people talking in a featureless room. I don't think you have to describe all the details of each place, especially since I've read several novels that get bogged down by too much description. You could just focus on the things that the characters are using, tasting, or hearing, like if you're writing a restaurant scene; you could describe what the characters are eating and what they hear during the meal, but you don't have to describe everything else in the restaurant unless it matters to the story.

  4. I used to do too much info dumping to get my settings across. I have chosen places that were familiar though, like Book IV's setting in ABQ, NM. We used to live there and that helped me make the setting and my descriptions feel natural.

  5. Sometimes I do know immediately where I want the story to take place because its part of the plot, but other times I have to think about it and then work the setting I later choose into the story. For the sequel to Hurricane Crimes, my characters actually go to a few touristy places. I had to do a lot of research to get these places right. I did include a few little tidbits about the setting that a reader wouldn't know, but I felt it was okay because my character was learning it too. Plus, I gave it to a beta reader who lives there to check for accuracy and she let me know if something sounded like a tour guide. haha Just let the setting speak to you. If it wants to be noticed, let it. If it wants to remain out the picture, let it.

  6. Hi there!

    I just stopped by to check out your blog. I've signed up for yet another year of the A to Z Challenge and look forward to reading many, many posts next month...;~)

    Take care,

    Donna L Martin
    author of THE STORY CATCHER (Anaiah Press 2015)
    coauthor CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL: ANGELS AMONG US (Simon & Schuster 2013)

  7. Not screaming is a perfect way to say it. It's about choosing the perfect word or phrase to capture that place you've chosen to put your characters into.


  8. I personally believe that the setting is as essential as one of the characters. I tend to write about places that are familiar to my life. At least a setting I can clearly see in my mind.

  9. I struggle with getting the right amount of details in a scene for setting - it's something that I've been working on with a few extra projects.

  10. I've always used fictional settings because I like being able to create whatever I like, but in any case setting is a character to some extent. In my trilogy the setting is an integral part of the plot and impacts on the moods and actions of the characters. You can have some description but it's good when it's between the lines - always there in the background, which is quite tricky to do!

  11. I am horrible at setting. Usually I forget it because I don't need it. And then I hear people say "I can't visualize that" (not necessarily about my stories) and it makes me scratch my head.

    A lot of good thoughts, and I think I need to go think about my setting now. :)

  12. I try to use what I'm familiar with, which in this case is my home state of Connecticut. I use a moderate amount of both suburban and city settings for my stories, so I always go with what I'm used to.

    Father Nature's Corner