It was a dark and stormy night. If you’ve never actually read those words, chances are you’ve heard them spoken. But as trite as they are, those words serve an important function, and that is establishing the setting of your novel. Well, okay, they’re possibly more accurately setting up the weather, but they still convey a sense of atmosphere, and help to place your reader in a time and place. In other words, they are:
Painting the set
The setting and landscape of your story are elements of your story you might overlook when you first start planning your novel. Many writers neglect it in favour of plot and character development. But it’s a vital element to the piece you’re writing and, in a manner, a character unto itself.
Describing the setting is building the stage and world in which your story takes place. Ignore it, and your characters are essentially performing in a world void of backdrops and objects.
Imagine going to see a play and there’s no background or stage props. How would you know what room your characters have walked into?
The presence of these surrounds are what tell your audience what world they are travelling through with your story.
Or imagine a movie where the budget is so low you can tell it’s shot largely in someone’s garage. That’s what neglecting your setting is tantamount to.
Note: Just because you do need to focus on it, don’t make the mistake of obsessing over it. Many books are filled with purple prose and excessive world building. There are, of course, times when the setting feels as rich as the storyline, and can therefore feel just as centre-stage as any of the characters, and even complement them, as in the case of Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake).
The trick is to strike the right balance that allows your reader to visualise the place without pulling them too far away from the story.
With each new chapter or each scene shift, the first time your character enters it, spend a paragraph describing the setting.
If it’s a place your character returns to later, you won’t have to describe it in detail again, as you have already painted a vivid image of the place with the first description. Drop a little reminder into the prose to trigger the reader’s memory and repaint the larger picture.
Imagine you have a cemetery scene. You might think all cemeteries are pretty unified in their appearance.
But are they?
Is it a large or small cemetery? A graveyard in a small town is going to look different to one on the outskirts of a city.
Is it maintained or left to squaller? Are there weeds about the tombs and gravestones or does it look well kept?
What about the different sections of the cemetery? Many are divided into different religions. Gravestones also vary depending on economic status. Some people purchase large statues to adorn the grave of a loved one, or feature marble stone with an image of the deceased. Others are a simple stone baring an epitaph.
All of these little details are the brushstrokes that paint your landscape and bring it to vivid life.
Don’t forget the weather
Weather also plays a role in establishing setting. Think of how the weather on a beach differs to that in a city. One’s wide open and vulnerable to wind, sun and rain. The other’s more closed in and sheltered, but this can also mean large chilly shadows on a sunny day and strong channels of wind sweeping between buildings.
How would people dress in each setting depending on the weather? How would they spend their time in each setting? Where would they congregate?
Each of these aspects of setting will determine where your characters spend their time and what they do. What they do will determine how they act. And how they act will determine their reactions, and therefore the plot.
A little thought experiment
Your setting is going to be strongly influenced by your genre and plot.
If I told you I’m writing a fantasy novel, chances are the image conjured is very different to the one if I told you I’m writing a mystery.
Or a sci-fi. Or horror.
Now think of a book (or movie) from any of those genres and flip the switch on the setting.
Put Harry Potter in space. What’s special about him now? What does Hogwarts become? Who is his nemesis?
Bring Star Wars down to Earth and throw it into the American West. Turn it into a Western. What’s Leia stolen at the beginning of episode 4? What does Luke become instead of a pilot and Jedi?
Grab any classic and flip its setting. See how it performs a Matrix-like rewrite. Characters change or disappear. Scenes and battles through space become chases through canyons and deserts. Magic becomes science fiction and vice versa.
Setting is something often informed by genre and plot, but it’s no less important to consider and put some time into building it, and exploring the affect it has on your story. It is, in its way, a character unto itself.