Setting is where the story and each scene take place, which you know. But do you grasp that setting can set the tone and mood readers experience, and can reveal and or trigger characters’ moods? You want to give enough (not too much) description for each scene to set the appearance, atmosphere, and mood for readers so they are clear enough in their own minds about the general or specific image you intend for them to have. It may help to create a list or essay description for your scenes (like a character sketch) and keep these handy so you stay consistent throughout the scenes and story.

Give readers something that helps them form an adequate image in their minds and sets mood and atmosphere—and gives them a sense of place. Give places texture through description. Here’s an example from a James Lee Burke novel:

“They drove back onto the four-lane and crossed the bridge over the wide sweep of the Atchafalaya River. From the bridge’s apex, Morgan City looked like a Caribbean port, with its palm-dotted streets, red-tiled roofs, biscuit-colored stucco buildings, and shotgun houses fronted by ceiling-high windows and ventilated green shutters.”

Here’s another example from a James Lee Burke novel that puts “place” to where his main character lives:

“I drove home at 5 p.m. and parked my pickup truck under the porte cochere attached to the shotgun house where Molly and I live in what is called the historical district of New Iberia. Our home is a modest one compared to the Victorian and antebellum structures that define most of East Main, but nonetheless it is a beautiful old place, built of cypress and oak, long and square in shape, like a boxcar, with high ceilings and windows, a small gallery and peaked tin roof, and ventilated green shutters that you can latch over the glass during hurricane season.
The flower beds are planted with azaleas, lilies, hibiscus, philodendron, and rosebushes in the sun and caladiums and hydrangeas in the shade. The yard is over an acre in size and covered with pecan trees, slash pine, and live oaks. The back of the property slopes down to the Teche, and late at night barges and tugboats with green and red running lights drone heavily through the drawbridge at Burke Street on their way to Morgan City. At early dawn there is often ground fog in the trees and on the bayou, and inside it you can sometimes hear a gator flopping or ducks wimpling the shallows.”

You want to make the inner and outer landscapes in your story as real as possible for readers. You want readers to feel as if they’ve been there, to feel connection to the story through location. They want to feel this, too. If you intend to or are writing a series with the same character or characters, you will have to describe some settings (and character descriptions) in each book, when appropriate, but with only enough information to give adequate description to new readers and refresh memories for those who follow the series.

A character’s scene setting can influence or reveal something about his or her internal landscape, as well. How you do this is more important than what you use to do it with. Here’s an example from an Elizabeth George novel (British—so spellings of some words are different):

"She parked the Mini with one of its front tyres on the kerb and went to see what the Breakwater had to offer. Not much, she discovered, a fact that other diners must have been aware of, because although it was the dinner hour, she found herself alone in the restaurant. She chose a table near the door in the hope of catching an errant sea breeze should one fortuitously decide to blow. She plucked the laminated menu from its upright position next to a vase of plastic carnations. After using it to fan herself for a minute, she gave it a look-over and decided that the Mega-Meal was not for her despite its bargain price (£5.50 for port sausage, bacon, tomato, eggs, mushrooms, steak, frankfurter, kidney, hamburger, lamb chops, and chips). She settled on the restaurant’s declared specialty: buck rarebit. She placed her order with a teenaged waitress sporting an impressive blemish precisely in the middle of her chin, and a moment later she saw that the Breakwater Restaurant was going to provide her with its own form of one-stop shopping." [My note: She found a current newspaper with an article she needed to read on the front page.]

An extraordinary amount of information is revealed in that paragraph. You get a sense of so many things: what a traditional or culture-based meal might include; approximate time of day; either she’s a poor car parker or didn’t bother about parking better on this occasion (has a lot on her mind, perhaps; but if she does this often, you have a sense of what kind of ride her Mini is and its condition); she picked a place to eat that obviously is not a local favorite (is her choice because of location, unfamiliarity with the area, that’s she’s on a tight budget, is a spendthrift?); it’s hot as heck—she sat by the window, hoping for a breeze; the description of the menu (laminated) and the plastic carnations give visual images and an indication about what kind of place this is (service and food quality); she finds something there she needs other than just something to eat: a current newspaper. Of course, if you read this particular novel or the series it’s part of, you know the answers to the questions in parentheses; but you can see how much information is provided by setting the scene, even in one paragraph.

Always give readers a physical location to “land” in (including an address with a made-up numeral; though, a numeral isn’t always needed, as in the Burke example). You can boost sense of place if you use street names and highway names and their numbers, to make the story more realistic for readers. For example, Rex Stout placed the house of his orchid-growing detective, Nero Wolfe, at an address on West 35th Street in Manhattan. The numeric part of the address, if real, would be in the Hudson River, but even though some readers may be aware of this (or not), they can identify with the surroundings or look up the street on a map so they get a sense of the neighborhood and where it fits in the layout of Manhattan. You may also have to make up brick-and-mortar businesses, etc., but keep these as realistically located as possible, if you’re using a real location.

How you handle setting matters because clarity is imperative. Everything you write creates a sequence of scenes in the minds of readers—they are experiencing a number of things simultaneously, so you must present them with information in a proper, reliable order. It’s mind-boggling as a reader (and as a developmental editor) to approach a scene and have the terrain alter from the original image the writer created in your mind as you move through the scene. One client didn’t have a particular scene setting clear in his mind, so just kept adding what he thought would be interesting or challenging for the characters in the scene (I was utterly confused about what the setting was supposed to look like, which I explained to the client). This kind of disorganized, willy-nilly scene creation makes readers (and editors) feel as though they were plucked from a stable environment and dropped into an altered reality. Unless your novel is about altered realities, don’t do this to readers; and if it is, make sure you do this with skill and clarity. Also don’t have what characters need appear out of thin air. Say a character needs a hammer. Unless you’ve set up where the character gets the hammer from, don’t have one appear in his or her hand from nowhere (unless your character is a magician or wizard). Everything has to be logical, even in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

One thing you might do is take photos of exact locations or locations that resemble ones you wish to create or use in your story, including exterior and interior photos (get permission, if needed—but notes can always be made without permission). This way, you have references you can pull from for descriptions and how scenes unfold when the terrain is important to the scene. (Most businesses won’t mind if you give them good promotion in your novel, but they will mind if you don’t—so make one up, if it plays a negative role in the story.)

You want settings to be as clear and real as possible for readers so you maintain the integrity of the story and readers’ ability to follow and connect with the story, scene by scene.

I wish you the best with your writing and progress.

Author's Bio: 

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