The 7 Keys to Writing Professional Settings

How about we shake things up a smidgen?

In the interest of naked truth and integrity: I’m sharing this post for two reasons, (1) to provide fellow working writers with vital writing knowledge to help them with their own burgeoning journeys, and (2) to earn more hits and boost my blog situation with the big boys at the Search Engine Department, in the hope of continuing my slow steady journey up the writing ladder.

As writers, you are smart enough to know why setting is crucial to a novel, so let’s skip the usual throat-clearing. The 7 Keys to crafting masterful settings are as follows:

  1. Where
  2. When
  3. Who
  4. Details
  5. Changes
  6. Mood
  7. History

Okay, let’s ‘elucidate’. (Hey, what’s the point in being a writer if you’re not going to flaunt your extensive vocabulary every once in a while? Have some fun!)

WHERE: Obviously your readers need to know where your scene is taking place. Is it on top of a mountain or in a cozy little kitchen? If it’s a familiar place (as in, you’ve already described it earlier in the narrative) then simply mention it in passing to situate the reader in the kitchen again, maybe add a peripheral detail overlooked earlier if it is relevant to this particular scene—as in, creepy Uncle Jethro has been corpsified and is now occupying 12 square feet of floor space with a pool of tacky blood reflecting the spider-webbed ceiling.

WHEN: Less obviously, your readers need to know the time of day and year in which the setting is being seen. Seasons and lighting affect mood and physical settings. In summer, doors swell and get stuck. In winter, drafts come barging through houses, unexpectedly and effectively adding nuance to setting. What time of day is it? Sunlight and streetlamps and living room shades throw different shadows across the setting, lending at times clarity or creepiness. If the setting is outside, the ‘time’ of year and day is even more important.

Temperature, humidity, wind, rain, snow, aromas and stenches are all profoundly important to establishing successful and memorable settings. These items all deeply affect the characters in the scene. If you don’t believe me, just check out Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series.

WHO: Speaking of the characters in the setting, it is important to clearly delineate all the players. Just as trees boasting brilliant autumnal foliage in the background lend color, so secondary characters are essentially backdrop to any setting; a part of it if only apart from it. Seemingly unimportant Joe Blow lurking in the shadows or hiding in the crowd may just be the as-yet unrevealed villain. And of course, the main characters occupying space in the setting are just as important as the physical location and/or weather. A riveting character can reveal as much about your MC as can your MC’s response to any particular setting.

SMALL DETAILS: The devil is in the details—especially if they’re possessed. Read masters like Mervyn Peake, J.K. Rowling and Anne Rice to appreciate how small details can easily elevate settings from hum-drum fiction to eye-popping realism. Such detail can suspend reader disbelief.

BEWARE the dreaded static description of lesser fantasists. Here’s an example of a static description of a setting, as written by a self-published writer:

The lush, planted areas of the compound were lavishly appointed. The beachside pool deck’s verdant landscaping was circled with the flicker of tiki torches – placed there for the big event that was just getting underway. An eighteen-piece mariachi band in full regalia had assembled by the massive palapa over the hotel-sized outdoor pool bar.’

Notice how, at first it seems like we have detail, but a closer reading reveals that nothing is actually described in detail. The writer employs vague adjectives and thinks this conveys detail, when in reality all it displays is a lack of imagination and overuse of a pet thesaurus. Also, nothing is active. His writing uses dead adverbs and bleeds barefaced clichés. We can see the setting, sure, but it is static.

The following is a description written by a master of the English language, Mervyn Peake, from his ‘lavish’ Gormenghast series. Here he describes the Hall of Bright Carvings:

Standing immobile throughout the day, these vivid objects, with their fantastic shadows on the wall behind them shifting and elongating hour by hour with the sun’s rotation, exuded a kind of darkness for all their colour. The air between them was turgid with contempt and jealousy. The craftsmen stood about like beggars, their families clustered in silent groups. They were uncouth and prematurely aged. All radiance gone.’

Notice how Peake’s adjectives and adverbs pop. They aren’t simply thrown in there, but are placed expertly within to lend mood to the setting. Even the air seems alive—with jealousy. Notice also how Peake masterfully illustrates the effects of the sun, so that the setting changes, and observe how he incorporates secondary characters as scene props, who supplement the sun and shadows and darkness in developing a tone for the scene.

In the first example everything is stationary, observed at a distance. In Peake’s passage everything is alive and part of the world; you can almost feel the atmosphere, smell the dust, the sweat of the craftsmen standing like beggars, as if you are right there in the setting.

CHANGES: Part of crafting a dynamic setting is showing engaging elements of an ever-shifting environment. In the above example, Peake succeeds at this by using the movement of the sun (by which we mean the earth, thank you fans of Galileo). Setting is not inanimate objects described coldly by a disinterested author. Setting is a living breathing environment that affects and interacts with its occupants and which is always changing.

One example of this is the cabin by the lake scenario. First seen in the opening pages of a novel, we don’t return to the bright, swept cabin until much later in the narrative. At this point a former occupant of the cabin has been killed. When his mourning beloved returns there, it is dark and encumbered by a carpet of dust, cobwebs strung hither and yon. The setting is technically the same place. But because of the change of the inner landscape of our MC (the beloved wife), the cabin is now a drastically altered environment; what once offered bright comfort now offers only shadows, and ashes in the fireplace.

MOOD: What mood does your car display? Think about it. The mood in your car is distinct from the mood in your house, and much different than the mood of the grocery store. The ability to include a sense of mood in the setting is the mark of a professional writer. It lends atmosphere, either positive or negative and to certain degrees.

Side Note: Mood is similar to the atmosphere of your novel, but distinct from its tone. When discussing ‘tone’ in a manuscript, editors are usually referring to the writers’ or narrators’ attitude toward the events in the story, and how they respond to events.

Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series has a distinctive mood. It is saturated in eeriness, dipped in melancholy, and spattered with haunting tones of hope. A few well-selected and even better-placed words and phrases create this exotic and rare blend. The result is an atmosphere thick with mood. Memorable. Delicious. The entire Old Kingdom in fact is a grand setting boasting this atmosphere.

How do novelists convey mood in a setting?

When attempting to infuse a setting with mood, authors like Frank McCourt and Toni Morrison will imbue the physical surroundings with a mood similar to that of their main character. For example, in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Beloved, the setting is a house, number 124, which we learn in the very first sentence, is spiteful. But even as the house itself seems filled with this mood, we learn that it is in fact the ghost that is spiteful. The ghost of Sethe’s daughter fills the setting with her mood until the house itself becomes an extension of her turmoil.

If your MC is filled with regret, perhaps you could make your setting a ramshackle two bedroom abode, ceiling crumbling in on its occupants as if shedding tears of remorse. If your MC is haunted by her past, perhaps you will have her crossing the country in a 1984 Ford Piece of Crap, its exhaust rasping black smoke, engine rattling in loose mounts, suspension wobbling, all because its past is catching up to it. You’re a writer, think of something clever and metaphorical or allegorical.

HISTORY: Finally, when crafting a setting, you want to consider its history. Remember to regard both the history of the objects described in your setting, and the history of the location as well.

What events transgressed in that room, atop that mountain, in the bottom of that lake? Happy events? Tragic events? Whatever has occurred in the past effects the present. Blatant examples of establishing history in a setting are the possessed and cursed objects in the Conjuring movie series. The settings of the houses are altered by the very fact that certain objects in the houses have powerful histories.

But in a more subtle way, history affects your setting by lending it meaning.

A set of dishes is broken by a husband throwing a drunken fit.

The wife will be angry, upset. The extent of her emotional state, however, is not turned on to full-blast, because the broken dishes don’t represent much but an extension of her husbands tirade.

If, however, the husband marches straight to the family china cabinet, intentionally seeking an ancient piece with intricate, hand-drawn floral patterns and engraved name, knowing its history as that of his wife’s grandmother’s dish, brought over to America during the ‘20’s, well, now the scene is filled with extreme emotion and meaning. Now the husband has hurt his wife by destroying an object of great emotional value.

(BTW, if you’re going for the smashing-of-family-heirlooms scenario, be sure to foreshadow their inherent value, by mentioning in passing earlier on why they mean so much to the MC.)

Okay! Now you know how to establish setting and convey meaning and life through it like a pro; you can add this knowledge to the 167 other things writers need to know. You shouldn’t have any problem creating that award-winning manuscript now (hyperbole implied through the use of italics).

Good luck and God bless your writing!