How to use setting in your story

08.14.2016Setting is an important part of any story. You want the reader grounded and relating to where the story takes place. Don’t leave her stranded. For instance, I critiqued the opening chapter of a novel today and all I know is that it was set in the desert. Which desert? What time of year (yes, deserts have seasons. In Arizona, summer is monsoon season).

On the other hand, too much setting makes your reader’s eyes glaze over. They start skipping ahead, one of the worst things imaginable for a writer.

Setting establishes mood, builds tension and adds characterization. It should engage the senses, but you don’t want a laundry list-the air smelled of jasmine; the scree of the birds raised the hair on Margaret’s neck; etc., etc. Like all description, setting should be dropped in a piece at a time.

Setting should be important to the point of view (POV) character. What does it reveal about her personality? Is she afraid of water? Heights? Is she a city girl lost in the forest? Establish an emotional connection, build the setting around the character’s fears, add challenges, and the plot becomes more complicated.

My latest story, Snow White and the Eighth Dwarf, now in revision, is set in winter in the Enchanted Forest. You bet I take advantage of snow and ice and storms to set the mood, add value to scenes, and challenge the characters. The weather deepens their struggles and creates lots of delicious conflict.

On the subject of weather, never, ever start a story with a weather report. Weather may be an important element to the story, but it’s not strong enough to hook the reader into reading more.

Weather should not be used as a mirror of the character’s mood. Rainy at a funeral is overdone and ineffective for today’s sophisticated reader. Instead, show the character’s reaction to the weather. Make it work for or against the character to bring the reader deeper into her point of view.

When describing setting, do so from the character’s point of view. What would she notice? How would she describe it? Use her language. Make the descriptions true to her character.

Remember pacing when describing setting. If your characters are fighting for their lives in an icy river (as do Snow White and her hero, Lex), they’ll notice the cold and the rush of the water, maybe the sound, but the pacing is furious. They’re fighting for their lives and have no time to recognize the song of a bird flying overhead.

By now, you recognize the importance of setting in your story. It can be a secondary character in moving the plot forward, establishing mood and creating conflict. Handled well, setting pulls your reader deeper into the story. Isn’t that what every writer wants?

Happy writing!



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