The Epic Guide to Setting Your Story (with a free breakdown questionnaire)
Why do we authors so brutally underestimate your power?
You are the backbone of our stories. You give our characters a place to roam, a time to pass, a culture to live in. You lay the foundations of all of our highs and lows. You show us things we didn't know about our characters, our themes, our moods.
Yet day after day, we authors sit down to write and halfheartedly give you a line or two. They aren’t purposeful lines. In fact, we write them as a prerequisite, like we have to get them out of the way before we can move on to whatever is on our hearts. We never fail to leave you feeling unappreciated.
It’s not you, settings, it’s us. We are the problem. We are the ones who aren’t paying enough attention to our relationship. But we aren’t breaking up with you yet. You are one of the best story elements we have ever met, and so we are dedicated to getting this relationship back on track. We’ll strive to learn more about you, to understand and appreciate your subtle intricacies, and to communicate with you clearly.
We want the whole world to know just how wonderful and purposeful and amazing you are. We’re sorry.
With love, Your Authors"
Oh, ahem. Uh, were you reading that? *blushes*
Settings are like the Swiss Army knives of story elements; they serve so many functions! But authors always seem to keep their knives bunched up in their pockets, only pulling them out to use when it's absolutely necessary. It’s time for that to end. Let's put your settings to work, starting today.
Ready to craft settings that serve a purpose? It may seem tricky or overwhelming, but I didn’t call this the epic guide for nothing. I’m ready to teach you all my tips and tricks, so let’s get started!
The Two Types of Setting
Every story contains two types of setting, each with its own elements. This isn’t a pick-one-and-ditch-the-other kind of situation. Both of these types of setting are essential to your story, so make sure to read up on both.
A story setting is the overall environment of your entire story. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about the elements of your story setting:
- What country, region, and town is my story set in?
- What part of town does my story take place in?
- What is that place like? Who are the people that live there?
- What is the culture like in my story setting?
- What time of the year or season does my story take place in?
- What is the political atmosphere of my story?
Keep in mind, your story may have multiple story settings, especially if you have multiple POV characters or your characters do a lot of traveling. I do suggest limiting yourself to no more than five, however, since story settings involve a lot of exposition.
Try to consolidate your settings as much as possible so that the reader doesn’t become confused.
Your scene setting is the environment in which each scene of your story takes place. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about each scene in your story:
- What town is my scene set in?
- What building and room is my scene set in?
- What time of day is it?
- What month and day of the week is it?
- What is the weather like?
- What items of particular note are in the surroundings?
- What kind of mood are the characters experiencing in this scene?
An average novel has 60 scenes, so you very well could have up to 60 scene settings. However, I suggest revisiting a scene setting more than once so that your readers better connect to the places in your book.
Setting and Deep POV
What is Deep POV?
Deep POV is going further than telling the story from a particular character’s perspective; it is removing all traces of authorship from the page and telling the story as though the POV character was the one writing it.
I plan on doing an article on deep POV in the near future (check it out here!), but know for now that utilizing setting effectively is one of the best ways to send your story into deep POV. Here are a few ways that you can give your setting purpose.
1. Describe everything from the POV character’s perspective. What in particular would your POV character notice about the scene? If they are familiar with their surroundings, they will probably mention their favorite or least favorite things about the space. They might also note when something has been changed.
However, if your character is new to the scene setting then their background will come in to play. Consider who your character is and where they come from. What in particular would they notice about their new surroundings?
An an example, imagine what a rich girl would see the first time she stepped into a homeless shelter as compared to what a homeless man might see. Pretty different, right?
2. Utilize the 5 senses. Touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. Each one of these senses can be used to describe a scene. The more of these you can mention in your description, the more vivid a picture you will paint.
But don’t just go down the list; make sure to work these descriptions in naturally. And remember to only mention the things that your POV character would perceive.
3. Describe everything in motion. As always, infodumping is one of the surest ways to kill the magic of your story. You can work setting into your scene naturally by describing the five senses in motion.
What are your POV character’s eyes drawn to when they enter the room? What items do they touch or have to move around when walking about the scene? How do things smell when they breath in or taste when they take a bite?
Your setting is a fine thread. Be sure to weave it
carefully into the tapestry of your novel.
Setting and Mood
Also known as the atmosphere, the mood of a scene is the prevalent feeling or emotion. Have you ever heard the phrase, “looking at the world through rose colored glasses”? If someone says it, they mean that they are taking on the world with an optimistic outlook.
Now imagine that your character is looking at a scene through rose colored glasses. Their description of the scene would include all of the things they consider pleasant or useful. The mood of that scene would be considered optimistic or hopeful.
The emotions that the POV character brings to the scene are going to affect the way in which they describe the setting.
If they mention that it is a dark and stormy night (please, please never use that phrase!), then your reader will recognize the mood as either eerie or depressing. In this way, setting can be super effective at pulling your reader into the emotions of the story.
Setting and Purpose
So you’ve written a scene in deep POV. You have utilized the 5 senses, described everything in motion, and taken advantage of mood. You’ve done everything right.
But does your scene setting serve a purpose?
There are often several settings in which your scene could take place. Why did you choose your particular setting? If it's simply because that’s where you’ve always imagined it taking place, then you might need to consider switching it up.
Everything leading up to the climax of your plot–the setting, the dialogue, the action, etc.–should have one purpose: to increase the stakes for your main character.
If you want to create conflict, up the tension, and promote suspense then you need to focus everything on making your MC’s life as interesting–and by default, as awful–as possible.
Your settings should be intense. Consider what is taking place in the scene. Where would be the most awful place for those events to happen? That is where you need to set the scene. I know it sounds cruel, but your readers will thank you for making the novel as riveting as possible.
You can also try increasing the stakes through the use of setting by utilizing irony. How is your POV character feeling in this scene? Try setting the scene in a place where all of the bystanders are experiencing the opposite mood.
Suddenly, the tension in your story has skyrocketed simply because you chose to showcase opposing moods.
Utilizing Chekhov's Gun
The principle of Chekhov’s Gun says that everything you mention in the story must be necessary and irreplaceable. If you mention a rifle hanging on the wall in scene one, it absolutely must be fired later in the story.
I don’t particularly like Chekhov’s original principle since it tends to take away from relative sensory detail.
However, over time the phrase has transformed into a story element in which a seemingly insignificant object takes on an important role later in the story. This is a principle that I can get behind 100% since it raises the stakes when done correctly.
Here are a few ways that you can utilize a Chekhov's Gun in your setting:
1. You can foreshadow a later event. Foreshadowing is when the author hints at something that is to come later in the story. For example, you might mention a loose floorboard in the living room in Chapter 2. In Chapter 8, your characters might be searching for an item of value in the house. Where do you think that the item should be found?
2. You can create suspense. You can up the stakes in your novel by giving readers an important piece of knowledge before an event takes place. For example, a character might notice a crack in the foundation of a house. Later in the story, an earthquake hits and the house begins to shake. Your reader will suddenly remember that crack and worry for the MC's safety.
3. You can cause conflict. Conflict is vital to your story because it is the backbone of a good plot. You can set up a bit of conflict by having something in the setting get lost or destroyed. For example, a character might mention a beautiful painting in his grandmother's house when he first enters. Later in the story, that painting is stolen.
Doesn’t the use of a Chekhov’s Gun provide an interesting twist to your story’s plot? Just remember to be subtle; you wouldn’t want your Chekhov’s Gun to be too obvious to the reader.
Do you have any other tricks for writing your story and scene settings with purpose? Which of these techniques do you already utilize and which are you excited to incorporate? Let me know, and have a wonderful week!