Are You Forgetting Your Setting?

I’d like to share a brief scene with you. Here goes:

“Life,” said Silver, “is a collection of unrealized dreams.”

Tia groaned. “Well that’s uplifting.”

“My profound apologies.”

That was something Tia noticed about Silver in the short time she’d known him—he had his own way of saying everything. “Many pardons,” instead of “excuse me.” “Energetically insufficient” instead of “tired.” “Inventively predisposed” instead of “creative.” Or, in this case, “my profound apologies” instead of “sorry.” He never uttered the words with irony, either. It was just how he spoke.

“Silver,” she said. “People enjoy your movies. So maybe you don’t need to care what critics and reviewers and whoever say. Right?”

“Critics and reviewers are gravity. I am but a rock bound to Earth.”

It took a great deal of Tia’s willpower not to scream. “Silver. I know we haven’t known each other long. But this depressive artist thing. It’s a little much.”

I think this is a decent start to a story. We’ve got two fairly well-developed characters with distinct voices. We’ve got hints of conflict. We’ve even got the seeds of a story emerging.

So sure, it’s a fine start. But where’s the setting?

Remember the scene in The Matrix when they’re standing in a totally white space? That’s basically what I have here. No explanation of where we are, no details about the area within which these characters speak. Just Tia, Silver, and their dialogue. I’ve done it before, and I’ve read other manuscripts with the same issue.

As writers, sometimes we place so much focus on character and plot that we forget about setting. Big mistake. Setting is an essential element of any great story. To paraphrase a professor of mine, settings should be written such that one’s story cannot exist in any other surrounding.

So how do we make sure we don’t forget our setting? Here are some thoughts.

Incorporate Your Setting Into the Action

This method works wonders. Take our introductory scene, for instance. Let’s see what happens when we insert the setting into the conversation.

“Life,” said Silver, “is a collection of unrealized dreams.”

Tia groaned. “Well that’s uplifting.”

They huddled in a room too small for two people, a single flickering bulb serving as their only source of light. The smell of dust and some chemical aroma (Silver’s cologne, perhaps?) seemed to crowed the space further. Tia wasn’t sure how long she could stand it.

I like this version better already. As readers, we can visualize the conversation now that we’ve filled in the surroundings. Additionally, the setting description adds context to the scene: Tia is uncomfortable, Silver wears Axe body spray.

Draw from Personal Experience

This principle works for most aspects of writing, but it’s especially useful for writing settings. That’s because so much of a setting is based on sensory detail, so it oftentimes helps to write about a place that you’ve been before.

Take the ocean, for instance. You might describe the smell of it, the feel of the sand between your toes, the sound of the gulls overhead. Make sure your audience feels like they can visualize and imagine themselves within the space.

If you’re writing alternate-world fantasy, this task becomes a bit trickier. Still, you can do it. Even if your story takes place in a world you’ve never visited and never will, you can still draw on personal experience. Think back to the time you went hiking through the mountains, took a trip to Death Valley, or went cave diving. These experiences can inform your settings, even those of an alternate world.

Imagine Your Setting as a Character

This is my personal favorite method of building a good setting. Imagine all the care and thought you put into your characters. Now apply those same principles toward your setting.

For example, your setting, just like your characters, has little quirks and oddities that no other setting has. Use those. A good setting, like good characters, help to progress the story further.

Give these tips a try and see what happens. And make sure not to forget that setting!

Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.


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