If there’s one thing I notice in many books I edit, it’s that authors often have trouble making their settings memorable; by this, I don't mean that their settings are unoriginal. I mean that mid-way through a chapter, my mind’s eye has replaced their setting with a void of non-description. So with that in mind, I’m putting together a new series for my blog, dedicated to helping writers put together vivid, realistic settings that their readers will remember.
First, what do I mean by setting? Well...
Setting is the place or type of surroundings where something is positioned or an event takes place.
This doesn't just include the location (bedroom, forest, courtyard, desert, etc.), it also includes what makes up that location. The little details and the objects. The culture and the nuances that make the place and the people unique. It includes all the things around your character.
In this post, I'll be going over 6 ways that you can incorporate details on your world, setting, and culture naturally into your story. These will be framed around the five narrative modes used to present information in fiction: description, dialogue, action, thoughts, and exposition.
Ps. Everything author used as an example in this post is a client of mine! (Or is just me.)
Setting and Description
The International Association of Professional Writers and Editors (IAPWE) says...
Description sets the mood and the scene and provides an explanation. It gives the details about some place, person or thing. It should serve the story and be a mechanism for immersing readers in the fictional world the characters inhabit.
Description is best told using a variety of the five senses and sparing use of metaphors and similes. Paragraphs of description can be used to describe new places, characters, and objects, or changes to any of those things.
To keep your story moving, avoid describing every little detail in a scene; show your reader what is needed to set the scene first—after this, only show them what is relevant or what you want them remember or pay attention to.
Take this example from Faetal, a short story by Charlie Daniels.
The gray-and-white stone towers rise high into the blue sky, the building both beautiful and monstrous. Gargoyles and dragons line its rooftop, intimidating shadows ready to leap on unsuspecting victims. And yet the sun’s rays illuminate the carved marble pillars at the entrance, the reflective shards of mirrored glass embedded within sending streams of light across my skin as I approach.
This paragraph takes place on page one, making the opening to Daniels's story beautiful, magical, and perhaps a little intimidating. This description not only gives the reader a clear image of what the protagonist is looking at in the moment, but also what to expect from the story.
The above paragraph is followed by this one a little later:
I close my eyes and breathe in the soothing air filled with honeysuckle, wild berries, and a little pixie dust. Everything you'd expect from the land of the Fae; or maybe that last part is simply because the pixie in question has been trailing me since I left the Summerlands.
Here, we venture into the other senses. We get an impression of what the land smells like, which tells us that it is a fantasy world before the protagonist clarifies that fact.
When describing your scenes, it's important to vary your use of the senses to give your reader a rounded view of your world and also to keep them interested and you from repeating yourself.
Description shouldn't be confused with exposition, which we'll get to next.
Setting and Exposition
The IAPWE says...
Exposition is used to provide details about characters or the story. It is used in the beginning and during transitions, for instance to inform readers about passage of time, change of place or mood, or change in the focus character. It tells, rather than shows, readers about important elements of the story or characters.
When writing exposition, the key is to keep your narrative distance broad. Imagine you're on a tour bus and the tour guide is telling you the history of the town you're passing through. You'll be able to look through the bus window to get a look at the atmosphere of the area and its landmarks, but you won't linger long enough to get a good look at the nitty-gritty details.
Use periods of exposition, where relevant, at the beginning of scenes set in a new location/with a new character, or mid-way through scenes if you want to pass time. For example, if your character is travelling from one city to another.
Generally, avoid placing exposition in the middle of conversations or tasks. This will most likely disrupt the flow of your plot.
Jacob McElligott begins his novella, The Orc Ranger, with a paragraph of descriptive exposition to introduce the reader to his setting.
The Dragon’s Hoard Saloon was located in a small town known as Desert Rose, deep in the badlands of northern Albara. Desert Rose was the bustling western town that everybody back in the east was writing about. People flocked there to work the mines, build the railroads, or try their hand at cattle ranching. Of course, once they got there, they realized creating their fortunes from nothing might not be as easy as they had imagined. At this moment, early on a Saturday night, the Dragon’s Hoard was filled to the brim with folks from all walks of life. Cowboys and farmhands milled about beside miners and working girls. All of them had spent the week working, and this was the last night they had before their respective churches would try to save their souls on Sunday morning.
The period of exposition McElligott writes consists of two well-versed paragraphs. The first paragraph shows exposition in its broadest sense, letting the reader know about the town. Here, developing your setting isn't so much about specifics, but about establishing a vibe. Using key words such as bustling, mines, railroads, and ranching lets the reader know what kind of town we're looking at.
Following this, the second paragraph is dedicated to a more specific location. Here, we're looking at the saloon. McElligott narrows his narrative distance but still keeps it relatively broad as he describes the patrons, at the same time providing details about their lives which further fleshes out the setting.
Setting and Dialogue
There are two ways you can present your setting around dialogue. The first is within the dialogue; presenting setting this way will usually give you an opportunity to slip in subtle details about culture. (Yes, developing the culture of the world around your protagonist is a great way to immerse you reader into the setting and keep them there.)
Take this example from my novel, Seeking Shadows:
Merrick nodded, but I could tell he wasn’t finished. “Do you remember what I taught you about Intuition?” I nodded. “Acknowledge your emotions, Branwen. The position of a High Shadow—angel or reaper—gifts us with these extra-sensory abilities to help us rule. Next time you are feeling this way, I want you to pay attention to what you were thinking or doing beforehand. Question anything. Notice everything.”
Here, you learn a little about the world the characters are living in. First, that there is a hierarchy. Second, that angels and reapers exist—potentially in harmony. And third, that magical abilities exist in this world too.
Your characters just talking about their world in a natural, comfortable way will immerse your reader. Even things as simple as changing what counts as a curse word in your world can tell the reader more about your setting and keep them aware of it. For example, in Seeking Shadows, "Oh Mother..." is the equivalent of "Oh my God..." and "Balance!" is the equivalent of "Sh*t!"
The second way of presenting setting around dialogue is next to the dialogue, often in conjunction with action beats and dialogue tags to emphasise and illustrate what is being said.
For example (also from Seeking Shadows):
She didn’t move, her gaze remaining plastered to the man. “What do I do?” “Fly through the smoke and get back to the Nether. I’ll deal with this.” I shifted to observe the crowd again and placed my hand on the ground to steady myself, only to touch something wet and warm. I lifted my palm and the stink of fuel hit me at once. “Better sooner than later,” I finished, eyeing the licks of fire that reached for the puddle at my feet.
Here, while the protagonist is moving to observe what is going on around her, she is also experiencing something closer. When she touches the fuel, her sense of smell is stimulated, as well as touch. The addition of the fire reaching for the fuel completes a full view of the scene and also adds urgency to her words without changing any of the dialogue.
Notice that Branwen doesn't say that there may be an explosion; the reader is left to pull the pieces together based on what they've been shown. In this way, your setting is upping your stakes and moving on your plot. Allowing your reader the freedom to work things out will also keep your pacing up and stop you from repeating yourself.
Let's take a look at that last line again: "Better sooner than later." Check out how the tone of the line changes across the three examples below, simply by tweaking the setting.
1) In her bedroom, the warm light of her bedside lamp greeted her. She dropped her phone onto its charging dock and her keys on her vanity, then collapsed onto her bed, becoming engulfed by the soft sheets which threatened to pull her into sleep in seconds.
"Better sooner than later," she said.
2) He peeped around the corner, careful to remain low to the ground. Beyond, guards patrolled the area, searching every nook and cranny with bright torches. They were moving quickly under the moonlight, unperturbed by the heavy rainfall.
"Better sooner than later," he said.
3) I held his hand as we crossed the street, our footsteps smacking on the wet tarmac. Twinkling fairy lights and neon reindeers reflected in rainbows on the puddles. I looked up as we approached the other side, confronted by the bright lights of a jewellery store. We stood for a moment in front of the window, admiring the glittering diamonds rings on plush velvet cushions.
"Better sooner than later," he said.
Setting and Thoughts
Presenting setting through thoughts gives you an opportunity to add a little more detail, as well as give your characters an opinion which characterises them. That opinion can act as an example of their personality and their view on life, and that will help your reader feel closer to them.
Thoughts also aid in clarity. Use your character's thoughts to compare a difficult-to-visualise object, person, or setting to something your reader might be more familiar with.
Does your rookie space cadet from London describe a spaceship as looking like a double-decker bus?
Does your chef describe a magical creature as looking like a cream puff?
Does your bookworm associate everyone they meet with a book character?
Take this example from Bleak State by Stephanie Mylchreest:
The inside of the old Slovak defense bunker had an oddly curved ceiling, and the plaster that had been applied decades ago was rough and crumbling. It wasn’t unlike being inside a cave, Harper thought to herself.
In the first sentence, Mylchreest draws a picture of the environment surrounding the protagonist, Harper. But in that second sentence, she provides the reader with a lot more detail, simply by comparing the setting to a cave. Just from that description, we can imagine the place is claustrophobic, musty, and without natural light.
From Harper making that comparison, we can also deduce that she has experienced caves and so may be quite an outdoorsy person.
Setting and Action
The best way that you can continuously ensure your readers are visualising your setting is by making your characters interact with it. This might be the way they move through it, or they might be interacting with a specific object. Making sure your characters are interacting with their environment also has the benefit of grounding them in the scene, as well as keeping your story moving.
This is quite simple to do. Close your eyes and visualise where your MC is standing; now think about where they need to end up. Look around them—take note of any people, any obstacles they'll have to navigate around (big or small), what the weather is like. All of these things can pushed onto your character in some way.
For example, let's say your character has to walk through a busy market. Things that they may be forced to interact with are:
A dog running into their path, forcing them to suddenly stop.
A pickpocket lingering in their shadow; how does your character react?
A merchant carrying a rug and narrowly missing knocking your character over the head.
A puddle of rancid water your character has to jump over.
The humidity collecting on your character's skin; how do they react to the heat?
An incense stall where a woman is grinding lavender—your character is allergic.
As you can see, the possibilities are endless. Intersperse these details throughout your scene as your character moves through it. Are they talking to somebody at the same time or are they running through their thoughts? Action adds movement to your story.
Here's an example from J. Lynn Hicks's novel UPLOAD.
Jett turns away from the clearing. It can’t be any later than ten when she starts to move, because the sun is in front of her, high over the trees. The autumn days are getting shorter, and she’s hoping she can get help before the sun goes down in roughly eight hours. She parts the brush and walks in the direction Slade suggested. In the dense woods, she pinpoints her immediate goal and walks toward it. It isn’t easy—the high grass and thin branches snap back at her with each step—but nothing stops Jett from moving.
In this extract, Hicks paints a picture of the scene while the protagonist, Jett, is moving through it. We are told the time of day by the position of the sun, the time of year—which ups the stakes because nightfall isn't far off—and the general terrain she must move through.
You may have noticed that many of the examples we explored could have fallen into multiple categories. If you tackle one, you'll most likely be able to tackle another. Hopefully this post has given you some ideas on where you can add your setting into your story.