There is perhaps nothing in fiction that can draw a reader into the world of your characters better than a well written setting. The setting is the environment, the place, the shell in which your drama unfolds. It is meant to reflect, to reveal, to support the theme and mood of your story in a subtle but discernable way.
The setting can establish everything from context, location, and circumstance to emotion, relevance, and time. It is a framework, a stage for your characters to come alive on. A well written setting can tell a story all on its own; providing all of the ambiance and details necessary for your story to come alive in the minds of your readers.
Now that the importance of the setting has been established, a burning question looms to the forefront: how does one go about creating a realistic setting; a room, a town, maybe even an entire world that exists only in the mind? It’s not always easy, but having a clear-cut path with thought out steps goes a long way. Here are the five steps to creating a fictional setting from nothing:
Step 1: Determine the Importance of the Setting
Before you begin building your setting, you need to have worked out in your mind the importance of the setting.
–What weight does the setting bear on the story?
–Does much of the plot centers around the setting?
Here are some key questions to keep in mind:
- How long will this setting be used; do characters live here or are they passing through?
- What is the purpose? Why are the characters here?
- What will happen here?
Whenever a new setting is presented to the reader, impressions about the place and its importance begin forming. Over time, audiences become accustomed to certain patterns that they search for in stories. For example, if an author takes his/her time describing a place, the reader forms the subconscious conclusion that something of significant importance will happen there. Conversely, a setting that is vaguely described in just one or two sentences will appear trifling and insignificant to the overall plot.
Step 2: What is it?
Once you have determined the importance of the setting, you will need to begin establishing what/where the setting is.
–Does the scene take place in a castle or a coffee house?
–In a wide open field or a in a dusty closet?
–On the back porch or within an alien spacecraft?
Nine times out of ten, the plot itself will provide somewhat of a reference for the outline of the setting. Picture a scene involving a meeting between two mob bosses. What jumps to the mind when picturing the setting for this scene? Perhaps images of dark warehouses and seedy clubs. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box however. Maybe the two gangsters will arrange to meet at a less suspicious location like an amusement park or opera house.
Remember: setting conveys mood. Let the location of your scene act as a reflection of the drama between the characters.
Step 3: Effect on Characters
Ultimately, the setting is subservient to the characters. Just as facades in plays serve primarily as a backdrop for the story, settings should be created as an extension of the central plot. In other words, when building a setting, be sure to keep the actions of the characters in mind.
If no part of the plot will take place on the second floor, don’t waste time describing it. When you are describing a setting, make sure it is in a way that pertains to your characters. Indicate the size, color, furnishings, and light as they would be noticed by your characters. If your character is trying to escape from an attic, they are more likely to focus on the crowbar in the corner than on the trim molding running along the ceiling.
Step 4: The Dynamics
While this step is a little bit harder to describe, it is very important to establish the dynamics of a setting. In other words, how will your characters interact with the setting? Is the setting you are describing something they will only see, or will they also hear, feel, smell, or even taste it? Imagine your character enters a room they have never been in before: will they simply look around, or will they open drawers, pick up/handle objects, sit in the furniture?
As a point of contrast, consider two completely different settings: the jury room from 12 Angry Men and the factory from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In the first example, the room is all but irrelevant. It serves no purpose other than to contain the jury responsible for determining whether a young man in innocent or guilty. The stark banality of the room allows the focus to center solely on the deliberating jury members.
Now consider the chocolate factory. From the moment Charlie and the other children enter, every sense is stimulated by the wonders of the grandiose setting. The characters fully interact with each and every facet of the setting, even physically eating portions of it. In both examples, setting intensity is either diminished or heightened depending on the dynamics the story requires.
Step 5: The Details
Finally, no setting is complete without the finishing touches that you as the author create to add that little bit of flavor. While the steps above will help to build the world you’re describing in the reader’s minds, details are what bring it into focus.
As discussed earlier, settings help convey mood, emotion. Details are what provide the essence of that mood or emotion, the “aroma of the setting”. Rather than describing a house as “run down and depressing”, bring the scene to life with “mind pictures” like:
- Windows taped over with cardboard
- A rotting door hanging on its hinges
- Sagging gutters slowly dripping murky water
Creating realistic settings, like every part of worldbuilding, takes years to master. Coming up with fictional locations that an audience can easily visualize can be a very daunting task at times. By following these five steps however, you will find it much easier to organize your thoughts. Remember to give yourself the freedom to experiment with different settings and locations. Challenge yourself to create settings your readers will remember long after they finish your story.
Comment below with your thoughts on building settings. Which author do you feel is the master of fictional settings?