Setting is one of the things that I initially struggle with in my first drafts. I’m really bad for having my characters almost free floating with no discernable location. Much of the time the setting doesn’t become fully realized until I go back and add it into scenes. I think the difficulty with it is that I can see it all in my head and it doesn’t necessarily translate onto the page when I’m focusing on dialogue.
Setting is almost a character unto itself. It is the surroundings of an event, including; time period, location and anything you can acquire with your senses. Each scenes come to life because of the setting it’s in. Without it you can feel a little lost and not grasp everything that makes a scene rich and real.
To establish the time period of a story you need to focus on the details. Is there a specific dialect used in this place and time? This is where accents, lingo and item names can bring a great deal of information. Obviously you can’t know all of the details for things like historical fiction, but this is where imagination comes into effect. Say for example that you’re setting your story in ancient Rome and your character is wandering into the district where the industries are, such as the butcher and the fullery. The most appropriate sense to use here to bring in the reader would probably be smell. To imagine a fullery and the slaughterhouse of the butcher in the height of a Roman summer you could compare it to an outhouse used by a thousand people and left to bake in the sun for a week with an overlay of copper and rot. From this single overwhelming scent you can derive other points of the setting and how they make the character feel and react. Most people can imagine a vague image of ancient Rome based on what is leftover, but the writers job is to bring all of the other details into focus to create a complete picture. From these points of information the reader gains enough knowledge for their minds to extrapolate and fill in more. You don’t need to provide every single tiny detail, but enough to build a picture. Words such as forest, desert, etc. will fill in a natural image for most people, but those additional scent descriptors will help round it out. What kind of trees are there? What color of the stone?
Setting needs to be as well rounded as any character would be. The hard part for the writer is that we experience it all internally and it may take a fresh set of eyes to remind us that we haven’t brought the reader into that world with us. Obviously the creator of the story knows where the characters are, but you have to be diligent to make sure that the reader knows too.
To compare the difference it can make, say you have Bob and Cindy talking to one another. They could be anywhere, but we want them to be somewhere. So we take Bob and Cindy and we put them into a park with a lane of traffic whizzing behind them. We put them on a park bench with just enough shade to make the heat of the noon sun bearable. We put them in the path of the scent of the fountain, of freshly cut grass and roasting hot dogs from a vendor on the corner.
When you’re world building the setting becomes all consuming. You are crafting a world that will influence the decisions of your characters. It limits them while at the same time it paves pathways the writer may not be aware of when they’re working. It’s a phenomena that seems to occur with writers, the characters take on a life of their own and take the story wherever they want to. With a good, established setting, it doesn’t matter where those characters run because they are running within the overall context of the world you’ve built.
It’s a fun process, if a little frustrating at times, but very beneficial to your work. If you’re a writer, good practice is to choose a completely mundane location, such as a dentists office, and challenge yourself to note all of the details that make it unique, that the reader would, without a doubt, know it as a dentist office without ever being told.
Keep reading, keep writing and experience the world from new angles.
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