Creating good settings in your writing is crucial. Your characters aren’t walking around in a vacuum, they’re walking around in a world with things in it, and it’s your job to describe those things so that your readers have a mental visual of where your characters are.
Take this stunning example of the opening paragraph from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
Without any setting description, this opening paragraph would look like this:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village. Troops went by the house and down the road and we saw the troops marching along the road and afterward the road [was] bare.
Settings, therefore, are incredibly important.
How to create good settings:
Good settings give you just enough of something. Just enough for the reader to visualise where your characters are, without you smacking them over the head repeatedly with so much description they want to die.
Think of your memories. When you remember your bedroom as a child, what do you remember? Perhaps it’s the dark blue of the carpet, the stark white wood of your bunk bed or the mirror in the corner that was covered with toys.
That’s all you need to remember it.
And that’s all your reader needs to see it for the first time.
You don’t need to tell them that the room was 12m2, painted in three parts with different coloured paints with a window frame, lace patterned curtains, a small desk, a shelf with a clock on it, two chests of drawers and a horse figurine.
Unless that’s the style of writing you’re going for, of course.
Opening paragraphs are particularly important for settings. We need to know:
- Where (and when) we are
- Who we’re with
- Why we should care about that character
- What they’re doing
- What they’re like
And you guessed it. Setting comes into nearly all of those things.
If we open with a character in their bedroom leafing through a book, what does it say about the character and their personality? What’s the difference if we open with them running through the streets of a sprawling city, rain beating on their face, sirens blaring in the background?
The first one gives us the impression of someone calm, someone quiet perhaps. Reserved. The second gives us the impression of someone dynamic, possibly dangerous, possibly in danger. Your settings do a lot of work in your writing.
Creating settings: Exercise
- Write introductions for stories set in the following locations. I’ve written examples for the first two to get you started.
- On a spaceship (e.g. The alarm from the reactor echoed through the steel corridors, pounding Christy’s ears. The ship was losing oxygen, and fast. She ran…)
- In a park (The trees sang to her as she sat beneath them, watching their boughs swaying gently in time with her heartbeat. She knew that…)
- In a city
- In the Wild West
- On a submarine
- During a war/battle
Write them in your own online space and drop a link if you’re feeling up to it, or else keep them safe in your notebook(s). You never know when you’ll need them!
Creating settings: Resources
The Top 10 Elements of Setting In a Story: This covers off the fundamentals and therefore is a very good place to start: locale, elapsed time, mood and climate are all covered off here.
3 Techniques to Write Better Settings: How to include interesting tidbits and themes in your settings.
How to Build Your Story’s Setting: How to balance the main location vs. the wider geography of your setting
7 Tips On How To Write Realistic Settings: How to use tools like Google to capture real-world settings.
Effective Story Settings Examples: Looking at how other authors like Tolkien and J.K. Rowling use setting as an integral part of their pieces.
So, good luck my fellow writers! Have a wonderful day/week/month/unspecified period of time writing stuff in notebooks and staring at people for longer than is polite on the train.