Tips for Establishing Setting

In fiction, revealing setting is key to your story’s believability and atmosphere.

Think back to your most engaging experiences with literature, those works with an extraordinary sense of time and place.  In those writings, the characters were more than fictional players; they were inhabitants of a thriving and breathing world.

How can writers harness the power of setting?

The problem is that many writers try to establish setting by describing the scene instead of allowing the characters to interact with the scene in a meaningful way.  You’ve probably seen something like this in your own writing or in the writing of others:

“The walls of the room were white, and the concrete floors stretched for miles.”

There are two problems with this setting description, and both hinder the pacing and believability of the overall work.

Problem # 1: Passive Voice

The quote relies on passive voice, an issue that causes the setting to feel disconnected from the story’s characters.  By writing in this style, the writer establishes setting as an afterthought, a break from the action that may cause readers to lose interest or forget the direction of the plot.

Problem # 2: Lack of Development

The quote does nothing to advance the plot or to add characterization to the world’s inhabitants.  The characters’ lives are simply on “pause” while the narrator describes a setting that has no bearing on the actual events of the story.

Solution:

Descriptions like the example above are common, but the good news is this–writers can employ several powerful tools to overcome pitfalls associated with establishing setting.

Setting through Action.

With this strategy, setting is revealed through character interaction with the world.  It is the purest form of establishing setting, and it nets the biggest bang for the literary buck.  Consider the following:

Jack squinted against the blinding white walls, his steel cleats going on the endless concrete floor.

In this revised example, the plot of the story and the establishment of setting occur simultaneously, one building from and enhancing the other.  The plot moves forward while also providing information about the character’s surroundings.

Setting through Figurative Language.

When writing a setting description is unavoidable, do it with figurative language, a strategy that intensifies the reader’s connection to the place through comparisons to relatable imagery.  Take a look at the following:

Jack walked the endless corridor, the walls a blinding white snow, a sunny mirror in the heat of July.

The revised example uses contradicting imagery (sun and snow) to create a unified meaning (The walls are bright white).  The use of figurative language conveys setting and also creates a vivid image to anchor a scene in the reader’s mind.

Setting through Dialogue.

Readers love to hear the narrative voice of a well-written character.  In the literary world, it isn’t enough to write characters; we must also allow characters to interact.  Check out the following:

“The walls are blinding. I can’t believe you brought us here.”

“Forget the walls,” Jill says.  “If you complain again, your head’s going through the marble.”

The dialogue provided in the revised example reveals the setting (white walls and marble) while also advancing the story’s characterization–Jill means business, and Jack likes to complain.

Setting through Characterization.

Writers can leverage a character’s background description to also offer commentary on the story’s setting.  Think about the following:

Jack never believed he would see a world so bright, so unlike the walls of his former prison.

The revised example reveals an aspect of the character’s past while also offering commentary on the present setting.  Revealing setting through characterization is akin to revealing setting through action, but one advances the plot while the other advances the character.

So what’s the big picture?

Writers must create a world where characters are free to live without interruption.  Quit talking about the oaken door, and let your characters break it down!

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