Building Setting: The Do's & Don'ts of Writing Setting



Are you working on a new project and aren't quite sure how to begin? Maybe you're looking over an old manuscript or editing your current one and think that the setting may be an issue. With this quick checklist of do's and don'ts, you'll be able to efficiently craft your perfect setting.


View your setting through your character's eyes


Remember who is actually writing your story. You may be the person with the pen or the keyboard, but the true writer is your protagonist. It's their life you're jotting down after all. What better way to tell that story than to make sure you're staying true to who they are and what they're doing. Look at your setting through their eyes and make sure that whatever ends up on the page reflects their experience. When they walk down the street, what do they see? What do they notice or ignore? When they see other people what do they think of them? All of these things can help ground your readers and give them a better understanding of both your setting and your protagonist.


Be as specific or vague as necessary


There comes a time when you need to decide how much or how little should be shared in your opening setting. Some books require a fair amount of detail in order to draw you in, fantasy for example. To understand where you are, which is completely different from the world we know, description is key in order to avoid confusion. Then there's novels like those in the mystery genre. Half the mystery is keeping things suspenseful and not giving too much away. It stands to reason that less may be more in this case. Whatever you decide, make sure that it's appropriate for what you're writing. Too much or too little can make a difference.


Show don't tell


A key mistake that a lot of writers (particularly amateurs) make is telling instead of showing. This is important in general, but is instrumental to your opening setting. Don't tell us that there are pine trees lining the lake that we are walking to one fall morning. Show us. Describe the crunch of pine needles underfoot as we walk, the pungent sweetness wafting on the crisp breeze. The chill of the morning dampens our hair and clings to our jackets, somehow sinking deep till it touches bone. We shiver. On the horizon we see the glistening of light fractals bouncing off translucent waves, like diamonds sewn into a gauzy scarf. See what I mean? Much more enticing.


Introduce your protagonist right away


There should never be any question as to who your main character is. The easiest way to avoid confusion is to introduce them within the first chapter as soon as possible. Setting should be used to make that introduction or add to it in some way. Keep things simple and clear.


Use your protagonist's viewpoint


To facilitate the bond between readers and your main character, start out your narrative from their perspective rather than an omniscient narrator or minor character's viewpoint. While there are examples of when it's okay to use the other two as openers, forging a direct connection to your main character is your best bet. It increases their emotional value to the reader because they can get a sense for who they are within the first few paragraphs simply by sharing their view of where they are with us.


Start with action and motion


Open with something happening. A dynamic setting is far more interesting than a neutral one. You don't want to start out with an expose about your character's history or a lukewarm description of the inside of their home during dinnertime. Give us something more dynamic to sink our teeth into. We want to see your character doing, risking, engaging- the action is what is going to pull us into your story and keep us there.


Describe your protagonist's looks and age


Nothing is worse than being two chapters into a new book and still trying to figure out what the main character looks like or how old they are. These two details MUST make some kind of appearance (no matter how brief or vague) to give readers a sense of perspective. Just like we need to understand where the story takes place, we also need to understand your protagonist's perspective relative to their setting. So much of how we react to the world is based off how old we are and what we look like. For example, a child will not view the same setting in the same way as an adult. Someone with a facial deformity may not be treated the same way as a regular person might by other people. Without knowing these two specifics, it can lead readers to assume the wrong thing and make us mad when we find out that what we imagined isn't correct later on.


Establish a conflict or desire immediately


Use your setting to help establish a conflict or desire that your character has early on. You can do this by using action and motion like previously discussed. You want to bring this in as soon as you can because it's part of the lure for readers to keep reading. If you pose a question or challenge that the protagonist must answer or face right away, it lures the reader into sticking around to find out the result. People by nature are curious. Grab their attention and don't let go.



Don't overshare


It can be incredibly tempting to expound upon every little detail when it comes to your setting, especially if you've put a lot of time and effort into planning it. Creating is fun, exciting, and of course you want to share every bit of it with your readers. The mistake here is the assumption that more is better. When you open your story it is more important to grab your readers with your plot than it is to let them explore all the intricacies of your character's world. Readers are much more interested in what is going on then they are in what sort of food is the main staple within your character's kingdom. Keep in mind that your setting is here to serve the purpose of showcasing your protagonist and their actions, not to showoff the setting itself.


Neutral is boring


Ever read a book or watch a movie and wonder why you're wasting your time? Chances are if you feel that way, it's because nothing of interest is happening. There may be a glimmer of allure in the overall concept and the setting itself could be intriguing, but if the characters are lacking or nothing happens, then those surface level ideas quickly fall flat. To avoid making this mistake, make sure that your setting doesn't present itself as "perfect". There needs to be underlying signs of conflict, symbolism, and an emphasis on what your characters are feeling. If your protagonist is upset, there shouldn't be sunshine. Or if there is, there better be a reason for it, like when your protagonist's love interest dies and in their mourning period they curse the world for carrying on without their loved one. Lows should feel low and highs should feel high and your setting should reflect this.


Nobody likes TMI


Laundry listing past events and explaining them is about as fun as history class in high school. While some of this info may be relevant to your story or your protagonist's quest, there are much better ways to demonstrate this information. Peppering it into the narrative in easy-to-chew pieces is easier for readers to swallow and enjoy. The only way you can go wrong here is by presenting it in bulk. Don't begin your first chapter with events of the past. Instead focus on the present action and introducing your protagonist by how they react to whatever is occurring.


If we didn't see it, it didn't happen


If you're opening your story by having your character "thinking" about something that happened to them before the story started, quit while you're ahead. Reading about someone else thinking is about as interesting as trying to watch a rock move. You should NEVER use this as an opener to your story. Why? Because nothing has happened that needs reflecting on. If the reader didn't see it happening, then it didn't happen. Instead of having them reflect, show them right smack in the middle of the prior conflict. This is much more interesting than hearing about it second-hand.


The build-up doesn't count


Instead of opening with a scene setting the stage for upcoming action, take out the middle man and launch us into the action. You don't need to worry about explaining why we're there or what is happening. Just let it happen. This will propel us and your story forward enticing us to stay for the ride. There is always time to slow down and make sense of things later once some explanations are needed.


Don't invite everyone to the picnic


Just because you have the table set doesn't mean you need to invite all your extended family over for dinner. The same goes for your initial setting. Just because you can introduce a bunch of characters doesn't mean you should. Keep your excitement contained and focus on bringing in only the necessary parties. Your protagonist and whoever they are in conflict with or whoever is helping them should be enough to get things started.


Don't muddy the waters


Avoid confusing your readers at all costs. You don't want them to read your opening chapter and wonder where they are, who everyone is, and who is or isn't doing something. Be intentional and clear with your setting. Explicitly tell us who is doing what, where they are doing it, and what side (if any) they are on. Leaving this vague is a recipe for disaster...and a reason for readers to *gasp* stop reading.


Utilize the chopping block


It's true, there are some details (no matter how cool) that don't make the cut. This refers to all the little specifics about your scenery that, unfortunately, aren't necessary to the main point of your chapter. While you may be tempted to show us how your protagonist hunts in the woods while on their quest, it's just not necessary. We need to see them there traveling through, maybe stopping for supplies or for some shut eye, but we don't need to know how they tie their favorite snare trap or how quickly they can reel in a fish.


There you have it, folks. The do's and don'ts of setting. Hope this helps you keep your choices succinct and better prepares you to start crafting your opening settings. Best of luck! Stay in touch by subscribing (if you haven't already) or by connecting socially via the links at the bottom of this page.


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