Setting is where and when a story takes place. But it is more than that. It is also a tool that we can use to add depth, emotion, and character development to any story. However, this needs to be done with care. Too much setting description will slow a story’s pace and create reader boredom. How many times have you skimmed over a long section of setting description?
Here are five tricks to make your setting work for you.
ONE Keep setting descriptions short.
Weave setting description throughout a scene in the form of one or two or, at most, three sentences at a time. Break these up with dialogue or the inner thoughts of characters.
“Then she blinked and looked around until she found it: a small nosegay on the sideboard, captured in one of the few rays of sun to pierce the chamber. The mauve edges of the petals glistened so sheer and crisp they looked dipped in sugar.”
“Maddy, who is it from?” Katherine asked again, focusing on her eggs.
“Colonel Astor,” Madeleine said.
Abe, Shana. The Second Mrs. Astor: A Heartbreaking Historical Novel of the Titanic (p. 18). Kensington Books.
TWO Use all the senses.
Visual description should be mixed with other sensory inputs – smells, tastes, sounds, and touch. See more on weaving in the senses here. Editing for Sensory Language
“The tobacconist’s shop was small, dim, and redolent of the scent of tobacco.”
Buckley, Kathleen. Most Secret. The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
THREE Use setting elements to mirror a character’s emotions.
Stormy feelings can be matched with stormy weather. Elation can be tied to pleasant scents. Irritation can be increased by annoying sounds and textures in the environment.
“Rose felt as if she had stepped outside the bounds of time and reality into an enchanted realm where there was no past and no future. The days were long and warm, and she was with the people she loved…”
Ashford, Lindsay Jayne. The Snow Gypsy (p. 285). Kindle Edition.
FOUR Show the setting from the character’s perspective.
Does the character feel small relative to what is around them? Or fearful. Or thrilled? Dos something in the setting cause the character to remember something from the past? Intermix the character’s inner thoughts with what they are experiencing.
“The restaurant was hot, the air smelled bad, and Sam’s tie was choking him. He never would have put the damn thing on if Henry, his lawyer and business partner, hadn’t bullied him into it, and now he was regretting it.”
Biller, Diana. The Widow of Rose House (p. 6). St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
FIVE Weave setting into dialogue tags.
Often, when character is conversing, the setting elements are forgotten or missing. Use those elements to replace repetitive said tags.
“’I’m here to cure diseases and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of bubble gum.’ Trishna grabbed two test tubes and pointed them menacingly around the lab.”
Cole, Alyssa. A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals) (p. 8). Avon.
Questions to Ask about Your Setting
Here are some questions to ask about your setting during revision:
- Are long descriptions broken up by characters’ actions, dialogue and/or inner thoughts?
- Are different senses used to describe the setting?
- Does the setting amplify the character’s emotions?
- Is setting described from the character’s perspective?
- Are there enough references to the setting elements to help the reader visualize what is around the talking characters?