The Reading Rainbow theme song really had it right.
One of the best parts of reading is the way books open up new worlds to us, whether a story is set in an unpronounceable ancient kingdom, the far reaches of outer space, ancient history, the distant future, or even the real world but maybe somewhere we’ve never been. It’s an incredible experience to be immersed in an unfamiliar setting.
Still, I’m not sure that all aspiring authors give quite enough thought to setting. The best worlds are more than just the trees that dot the hillsides or the stars in outer space.
Here are some of the most important elements in creating a memorable setting.
A sensory palette
When writers think cinematically, they often think solely about the dialogue and neglect that the author of a novel also needs to be the director and cinematographer. Readers need clear physical description to help them visualize their surroundings.
Great authors are able to immerse the reader in their novels by describing the precise way the blades of grass on the hillsides wave in the wind, the pungent smell of ale in the taverns, and the roars of the crowds in the coliseums.
There’s a reason J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling detail so many meals in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Appealing to a reader’s sense of taste and smell is very immersive and evokes specific feelings in readers. And J.K. Rowling especially has a phenomenal talent for including small clever details in Hogwarts that contribute to a fully realized world that makes you want to visit.
As a writer, you have powers that go beyond even a 4-D film director. When you immerse a reader in specific sensory experiences throughout a novel, the setting will feel more tangible and vivid.
The best settings are not static, unchanging places that have no impact on characters’ lives. Instead, in the best worlds, there is a plot inherent to the setting itself.
It could be a place in turmoil (The Lord of the Rings), a place that is resisting change but where there are tensions roiling the calm (To Kill a Mockingbird), or a place where an old era is passing in favor of a new generation (The Sound and the Fury).
Basically, something important is happening in the broader world that affects the characters’ lives. There are forces outside of their control, and the things that are changing in the world interfere with the characters’ lives (or the characters themselves may have a huge impact on these events).
Great settings are dynamic. Change is happening, and we have the sense that things will never be the same again.
Personality and values
There is more to a great setting than just the change that is underway, however.
A great setting has its own value system. Certain traits are ascendant and prized, whether it’s valor and honor, justice and order, or every human for themselves. It could also be a place where normal values and perspectives have become skewed or inverted due to outside forces (Catch-22).
There’s a personality and an outlook to these settings that throws us off kilter and makes us imagine how we’d react if we were placed in the same circumstances as the characters. They make us wonder if we would have the personal constitution to thrive within such places.
And, best of all, seeing places with unique values makes us look at our own surroundings in a brand new way.
Know and understand the values of your world. Who is a hero in this world? Who is a villain? Who are the celebrities? What are the religions? What is the government, who is in charge, and how are the laws decided?
Once you know the values, you can place your characters in line with these values or in opposition to them.
Most importantly, a great setting shows us something we’ve never seen before. Either it’s a place that most readers are unfamiliar with and have never traveled to (The Kite Runner), or it’s a place that we are all too familiar with but is shown with a new, fresh perspective that makes us look at it again (And Then We Came to the End).
Whether it’s a bar in Tennessee or a family’s living room on another planet, you, as the author, have to take us someplace that has a sense of uniqueness and specificity. You have the ability to take us behind doors that are normally locked to us or that are unreachable because of time or distance. You can give us a glimpse of life that we can only receive through your novel.
Know this above all: What is in the world of your novel that your reader hasn’t seen before? Even if it’s meant to be a familiar setting, how does the setting show everyday places in a new way?
What do you think makes for a good setting? And what are some of your favorites?
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: May 27, 2010
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Art: The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh