Consider Setting

Often a story’s need dictates setting, but think of your setting as a character as much as any of the beings that populate the story. Setting can be more than just choosing a place and time. Setting creates atmosphere and the writer can use it obviously or in contrast, or even to tell the reader something about the characters within the story world.

Consider a spooky old house. Straightaway, this conjures up images of darkness, bats flapping around the attic, spiders hanging from their webs and something menacing hiding out of sight around the corner. A house may bring to mind specific films or characters from the movies. In Psycho, the physical setting in which Norman Bates lives represents looming danger and his twisted mind, although the film sets out to mislead us. His home speaks of isolation, abuse. We feel sympathy for Bates, believing him to be a victim (which he is as much as those he kills). However, placing unusual happenings against a more mundane backdrop can have an equal or greater impact.

Or use a haunted house setting to tell a completely different story. Write a comedy, and deliberately use the unlikely setting as part of the joke. Whatever the story concerns, remember the atmosphere. There’s no need to be overly descriptive to build a story world, either, although sometimes writing the perfect, concise description takes longer than a meandering passage, but it’s worth practicing.

Often, the reader only needs to know the exact colour of a room or the pattern on the wallpaper if it has a direct bearing on the story or a character. That said, the way a character sees his or her room after returning from an absence of many years can give the reader a clear idea of the type of childhood this person has had. If the room is unchanged, kept as a shrine, this could tell the reader much about the character’s parents, or it could turn the story upside down and provide another unexpected and surprising reason for the room remaining untouched. Either way, the room itself becomes a tool to give us insight and therefore provide atmosphere. The room becomes as much a part of the story as the people the writer places in that world.

So, although it’s unnecessary to do this meticulously for every scene, when building the world around characters, consider settings carefully. Don’t simply erect a house with four featureless walls. The type of home the character lives in says much about him or her as much as the more obvious details do. Conversely, a character might live in rented accommodation where the roof constantly leaks and the walls are so thin arguments next door may as well be going on in the same room. If the character has a personal reason to be miserable, the accommodation can reflect their emotional state, cause it, or be the reason they’re forced to interact with others.

In one book of mine, I specifically choose to place several scenes in a garage where my MC (main character) works. At first glance, it’s easy to think my character simply needed a job, but the career I chose has always had a masculine persona, and this reflected his personality. The first evidence of his feelings comes to light in the garage, when the other men are trying to joke around. My other character’s sister confronts him in the garage more than once, and ultimately, something nasty happens there to make him face his feelings. There’s plenty of other action that takes place elsewhere in the book, but I deliberately set several pivotal moments in this setting because this is ‘his space’. It’s where he feels most comfortable, doing the thing he loves (taking care of cars), and where he feels most secure. In the garage, he’s a bloke’s bloke, and in charge. Suddenly, he’s insecure in the one place where he should feel safe. The sister’s wrath is an attack and his emotional state can find no solace in the one place where he’s always felt confident. He’s lost his sanctuary. His self-assurance takes another blow. He’s unanchored, insecure, and unable to find a moment’s peace from his emotions, even when working.

As with all writing, choose words carefully and deliberately, but this is especially true with setting. Light that glints ‘wickedly from the sharp edge of a blade’ leaves a distinct impression as opposed to a ‘soft amber glow of the sunset, made the knife gleam’ even though the second option may be as deadly — For example, this option also makes me think of two people preparing dinner about to have an explosive argument where the sharpest weapon will be words.

Don’t overdo adjectives and don’t forget to include more than one sense. People don’t just see; they touch, taste, smell, and hear, too. Apparently, smell can be one of the strongest things to invoke memory, so use it well. Likewise, music can create memory-recall more vividly than a photograph. Note: when using things like music, don’t simply use a favourite song. The story isn’t about you (the writer) — unless it actually is — it’s about the character and in this a writer has to consider age, context, history. If it’s a song she remembers from a time when she knew someone she’s never stopped loving, what age would she have been, and how long ago was it? What year? What played that year, in that month? Why did it resonate with her then and why now? Choose something historically accurate. Do the homework.

Such things also spark tension. If calling on a fastidious neighbour, and the putrid smell coming from the bin rankles your MC’s nose, the reader will surmise right away that something is wrong. An outside bin not pushed to the curb for collection can do this as effectively as an indoor bin a neighbour accesses with the use of a spare key when dropping off a regular shop, an errand run out of neighbourly goodness. In both cases, if this naturally clean neighbour hasn’t emptied the bin, then there must be a reason. Is the neighbour ill? Dead? Murdered? Does the rank smell coming from the bin herald the conditions in which they will find this person?

You can also use setting to place your story in time, but if writing a period piece, especially do your homework. Readers will know a writer has just made it up and guessed. It’s one thing to make a mistake, but quite another not to try at all.
And don’t be lazy. Don’t simply tell a reader that it was a rainy/sunny/cold/windy day. Describe the day and use it to bring something your character is doing, or feels, vividly to life. Is the weather that day in tune with your MC’s feelings, or irritating in contrast? Use setting to establish the scene or even to misdirect.

About Sharon

Writer of Dark and Light Fiction. Fact, fiction, poetry, short stories, articles and novels. Cross-genre, slipstream, non-traditional romance, gothic, horror, fantasy and more... Visit this diverse writer's site.
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