My day job is literally putting together sets for TV. In visual mediums, the set does the vital job of communicating a lot of information in a very short span of time. Everything on screen is a visual short cut, but that doesn’t mean it can be forgotten on the page either.
Details in any setting are part of the layers that build a story. They say things about characters. All these choices speak, and sadly, sometimes they say nothing at all. Make the setting work!
Choosing Your Broad Setting
Think about how geography could lend itself to your story when writing settings. I personally adore the idea of urban fantasy set in New Orleans. Why wouldn’t you? It’s entrenched in history of taking in outcasts. There’s already a strong presence of ritual and religious themes. There are some of the creepiest haunted mansions and cemeteries and the innate danger of the Bayou. On top of, you know, being beautiful.
Does the sprawling Midwest with its farm towns and endless rolling fields of wheat not lend itself to a story about depression? Especially when it gives way to a blinding whiteout of a winter.
A tropical island could be a perfect setting for a whirlwind romance, but what if it were the location of a thriller?
Alternatively, you could subvert a setting away from its natural association. A tropical island could be a perfect setting for a whirlwind romance, but what if it were the location of a thriller? What about an island could be emphasized to create those necessary unsettling themes? A small island is by nature very isolated. It could be very hard to escape. It’s surrounded by a deep, dark ocean. It could have a dark history in colonization and piracy.
As an exercise, take your setting and pick out the traits that make it fit your story, whether they be bordering on classic fiction tropes or a subversion that force the audience to reconsider their first instincts.
Even Stephanie Meyer put research into choosing Forks, Washington as the setting for Twilight because it rained there more than anywhere else in the US. Consider that your minimum standard.
The Street Was Full of Brick Buildings, Red and Brown with Signs Hanging Over Doorways…
So, you’ve nailed down what makes the setting perfect for the story. Now, time to show it off. First order of business is obviously to list paragraph after paragraph of detail to show the audience how vivid this setting really is.
You know I’m not serious. I hope you know I’m not serious.
The art of establishing setting is in brevity and in specificity. I strongly believe that if you need to characterize a one-off character quickly, you describe their shoes. If you want to characterize your setting, you describe the cars driving around in it.
He jammed the hybrid between two mud-speckled F150s in the parking lot.
In a sentence, you know that he is not from around there. It’s not likely a big city. There’s mud, and there’s a presence of guys who drive muddy pick-up trucks. In a sentence, the setting is implied without describing mud puddles on the ground or the view from the parking lot. Cars is too general a term. If I replaced those Fords with glinting sedans, it would be an entirely different setting. If I said they were a pair of electric cars, you might guess it happened on the west coast.
Drop in the detail. Drop in the specifics. Fight in as much detail in as few words. The ox-cart rattles over the cobble stones. The 4×4 shudders over a washboard range road. A roadster zips over asphalt. Summer tires skid over pack ice. Snow chains crunch through 7 inches of snowfall. The import bottomed out over the speed bump. The Grand Am clunked over the pothole.
The car drove down the road. Two nouns and a verb get you a setting, yeah? Optimize your sentences. Squeeze the last drops of usefulness out of them.
Find the detail that really establishes a world for you. It might not be cars for you. There are other specifics that can say a lot fast. Take a look at your nouns and see if they are working as hard as they could be. The trees may tower, but what kind of trees are they? Neighbors walk their dogs outside, but what kind of dogs?
To write most efficiently, make the readers do half the work. Sometimes, as a writer, all you need to do is tap into one visceral memory and the audience can fill in the rest just based of that one detail.
But it has to be good.
My best tip for creating fictional locations relies on memory do. Invoke something familiar. As an example, most people have been to a bowling alley. I love bowling alleys, partly because you can drink at them and partly because they are always these nostalgic places with outdated decor. Mention the cartoon pins dancing on the monitors and the glow of black light and the reader will fill in the rest. You don’t even need to write about the tacky linoleum. They’re already imagining it.
Mention the cartoon pins dancing on the monitors and the glow of black light at a bowling alley and the reader will fill in the rest.
If I were to propose a city as a set, those universal details would be in everyone knowing which neighborhood is the sketchy one, going to that one local hole-in-the-wall restaurant after school for the best Vietnamese subs, or watching hoards of sports fans in jerseys heading to the stadium on game day. These are things people can connect with. You don’t need to spend a lot of time describing a universal experience. The universal experience lends a sense of honesty and a story can always do with more honesty.
Write about something from your home town that you feel defines where it is and what it’s like. For me in my home town, there was the graffitied water tower (that has since been torn down), the designated smokers spot in the backwoods behind the high school, and the lake everyone kills their summer in.
I like to think of my settings as a kind of character. They have moods. They have sticky hot days and thunderstorms that shake your bones and soak into your skin. Matching the weather to the tone of your scene might be a little on the nose if you do it all the time, but if you’ve established miserable constant rain showers, throwing a convenient one in won’t hurt.
There are other factors other than weather that can establish a mood. The frustration of rush hour, the eeriness of an ill-populated town. The ripples waving through fields can invoke both the freedom of an ocean or the loneliness of seeing miles and miles into the distance. There’s both anonymity and hope in New York. There’s big dreams and crushing reality in LA.
For ultimate setting characterization, have the setting actively detriment the progress of the characters (or, alternatively, help them). A storm can impede progress. Its isolation can keep characters from reaching out for help. That tropical island? Force characters to swim or sail. A skyscraper forces a character to challenge their fear of heights. Use those settings to force more conflict.
The Right Set for the Right Scene
Some of the best advice I ever read was simple. Could a change in setting amp up the tension of a scene? This lead to an epiphany for me, ending in a reveal of shock-worthy information coming out in a hospital waiting room instead of the comfortable privacy of a family living room.
Think of George W. Bush being told about 9/11 while reading a childrens’ book to a group of kids. That’s the kind of terrible timing and tension you need in your book in your story. That’s the kind of thematic juxtaposition that is stranger than fiction.
What happens when you attempt to stage a fight in a library? Have a romantic scene on an ice rink. Trap your character and force them to deal with something on a bus or a plane. Have the worst possible thing happen at the worst possible place.
Take a scene and try it out in different locations and see how it changes the dynamic of the conversation or action.
The End of the Road
There are a hundred different settings that could be written a hundred different ways, but the important thing is to use them, like any other tool, to further your point. A light saber duel between student and mentor is memorable, but a light saber duel between student and mentor over pools of lava really sticks.