Hello gentle reader,
I haven’t been writing or blogging a lot lately, but I have been reading. And I’ve been disappointed by a couple of books, because of their setting. Or lack thereof.
If you’re a writer trying to get published, you may have received rejections that stated your world building needed work, or your setting wasn’t vivid enough.
Today I’m giving a few pointers to create a well-realised setting, one that will draw your readers in and bring the places you describe to life.
Step 1: Identify your setting’s weaknesses
– Your book suffers from the “We could be anywhere” syndrome
I read this book that was set in Chicago. Halfway through it, I had to go back to the beginning, because I couldn’t remember if it took place in Chicago or New York City. That’s how vague the setting was. In your own manuscript, ask yourself if your story could take place anywhere else. If the answer is yes, it means that your plot and your story aren’t interwoven enough: there needs to be a reason why this story happens in this specific place (whether it is a small town in rural America or London).
– Your descriptions are clichéd
I recently read another book, which was set in Paris. To my dismay, the author seemed to think that mentioning the Eiffel Tower here and having a character talk about Montmartre there was enough to set the scene. With your story, ask yourself if you’ve researched your setting enough to avoid describing what everyone already knows about that place.
– Your descriptions are boring
I read another book, which was set in a US high school. This is a tricky setting, because, well, we’ve all been to school and watched countless films/TV shows about teenagers at school. What you want to avoid here is a bland description: classrooms, bleachers, bathroom… If your story takes place in a very familiar place, ask yourself if you’ve described what makes it special in the eyes of your characters (whether good or bad). Ask yourself if your setting has personality.
Step 2: Create a great setting
– Avoid setting each scene in “anonymous” places such as hotel rooms, random streets, nameless restaurants, etc. This is especially important if you’ve chosen to set your story in an exciting big city. As a reader, there’s nothing more frustrating than being sold a book “set in Tokyo” and have the characters spend all their time in a non-descript apartment, for example.
– Do your research. Do A LOT of research. Your book will have two types of readers: the ones who have been to the place you describe, and therefore expect an accurate description, and the ones who haven’t been there, who deserve a description that will give them the chance to explore a place where they might never go. If you’re choosing to set your story in a well-know place, I tend to think that you should visit it yourself, to avoid clichés and to give your descriptions your own flavour. When it’s not possible, read widely about your setting, and make sure you write about what makes it unique and what makes it come alive.
– Make your setting come alive by using all the senses: help you reader experience the whole of your setting. Help him see it, but also smell it, hear it, touch it and even taste it.
– Avoid long descriptions: better focus on a few specific and striking details than write a boring one-page paragraph. Give the places’ names, and point out what makes them unforgettable.
– For a great example of a setting and a plot that blend together: THE DIVINERS by Libba Bray
– For a great example of a book set in Paris that avoids all the clichés: DIE FOR ME by Amy Plum
What about you? Do you have trouble writing vivid settings? Do you have examples of setting done well in literature? Make sure to share your thoughts below!
So true – setting is so important. I just read a book set in the Hokatika goldrush (The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton) which made me feel like I’d strolled down the street, wiped the muck off my boots and sat down in the middle of a dodgy lot of prospectors – just because of the detail – and the gifted way the author wove it into the story. The setting feels richer.
exactly right! if your story is great, but I feel like i’m in a blank room with bare walls, I can’t ground myself in the character’s world at all. I loved Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys set in New Orleans. Loved, loved, loved it.
I am always cautious about writing a setting in a real place because I know if I get anything wrong, someone is going to call me on it. If I don’t know the place, I try and find a similar photo of the place and practice writing about it. Great post.