While writers are usually concerned with nailing plot and character development (and usually rightly so), one of the elements of story that’s often neglected is setting. Whether through it’s big-picture worldbuilding or simply detailing a room, being able to put your reader in the same space as the action gives immediacy and realism to the scene and helps immerse them in the story world you’re creating.
By spending some time on setting, you can enhance other elements of the narrative, and that interplay will make the story tighter and more cohesive. Here are three elements to focus on when describing the setting:
What are the themes that you’re exploring in your story and how can your setting speak to those themes? For example, if you’re writing a small-town romance and the theme is “home is where the heart is,” you want settings that can suggest that sense of comfort, coziness, familiarity—so a local hangout with vintage kitschy touches, family photos lining the walls of a childhood home, granny-square blankets draped over an ugly old couch that’s been in the same place forever, a high school gym decorated for a dance. Use the kind of feelings and associations those images conjure up to describe the scene and deepen the experience for the reader while subtly referring to the overall theme. And use more than just the visual sense; smells (ugh, high school gym) and sounds (a creaky floorboard on the stairs) can also be part of the setting.
If the theme is the overall idea you’re exploring in your work, the tone is the overall feeling that you want to story to convey. I edited a book recently that had a very quiet, intimate feel to it that stayed tightly focused on the couple at the heart of the story. The author did a stunning job with the settings, which really highlighted the intimacy forming between them: a clearing set a distance away from an outdoor party under an open starlit sky; an empty room in an otherwise bustling and overcrowded family home; the privacy of a hotel room. Describing the setting really underscored the desire for intimacy and the quiet moments they could carve out for themselves to explore their connection.
To do this, brainstorm the adjectives you’d use to describe your story. For the above, it might be “intimate,” “quiet,” “thoughtful,” and then imagine settings that you can build around these words. If you’re writing romantic suspense, maybe it would be “gritty,” “mysterious,” “dangerous” and you’d come up with dark, shadowy cityscapes. Using settings to set the tone of the work helps the reader become absorbed in the story.
You know when you walk into someone’s house for the first time and you just think, “oh yeah, this screams [person]”? You want the same for your characters. As soon as you describe their space, the reader should have a good sense of who they are. So a loner alpha millionaire is probably not going to have a sparkly pink home, right? But I bet you could envision exactly the kind of home he would have just based on the “loner alpha millionaire” keywords: sleek, modern, giant floor-to-ceiling windows, zero personal touches. (How well did that match up with your vision?)
Of course, it’s entirely possible that a character may surprise us in terms of their décor, but it should make sense in the context of their personality and not be totally incongruous. The bubbly, brightly-dressed woman in the office might go home not to an equally colourful and loud apartment, but instead to a relaxing oasis of a place. The extroverted chatterbox may be a persona she puts on at work to get through her day, but her space reflects her true self. Setting here furthers our understanding of the character where the space they are most comfortable reveals something essential about them.
Just a little description of setting can go a long way in tying your story together in a subtle, neat way. Don’t forget to bring in those details!