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More Writing Tips to Give Your Settings Added Depth

Updated on May 23, 2014

The Two Most Common Forms of Fiction Writing

Storytelling is ultimately a creative act of pattern recognition. Through characters, plot and setting, a writer creates places where previously invisible truths become visible. Or the storyteller posits a series of dots that the reader can connect.

Douglas Coupland

Is your story character-driven, or is it driven by plot?

Think back to novels that you have read, and chances are that they will fall into one of those two categories. However, there is a third category that is often ignored, but which can be a boon to any story or novel. I am speaking, of course, about setting.

Take a look at science fiction for an example of setting-driven novels. In most science fiction, if not all, the characters are either operating in an unknown environment that dictates their actions, such as outer space, or they are in a familiar environment which is threatened by an invader. In both cases, the setting is crucial to the story.

I would submit to you, for your consideration, that even if you are not writing science fiction, setting can add great depth to your story if you use it and develop it properly. One only has to look at some of the great western novels for an example of this truth, or a classic like “Chesapeake” by Michener.

So let’s take a look at this area. What follows are some things to consider the next time you sit down to write a novel.

The frozen tundra could easily become a character in a story
The frozen tundra could easily become a character in a story | Source

WHICH SETTING WILL BEST COMPLIMENT YOUR STORY?

Is it a haunted house? A war zone? The deep woods of Maine, or the frozen tundra of Alaska?

Writers begin with a story idea. Many writers begin with a theme, like “love conquers all.” Take your theme, and determine which setting would best serve it. By choosing the right setting, you just might find the writing will flow easier.

HAVE YOU ADEQUATELY DESCRIBED YOUR SETTING?

In order for setting to work magic in your story, it must come alive for your readers. Have you made this happen?

Here we rely on the fact that writers and readers all share five senses. Use those senses to describe your setting. You, or your characters, are going to describe the setting through your eyes. You must make that setting real to your readers. A haunted house will only seem haunted if you adequately describe the cobwebs, the creaking boards, the musty smells, and the tangible presence of evil. If you fail to do that, your horror story might as well take place in a supermarket.

Could a marina be an effective setting for your story?
Could a marina be an effective setting for your story? | Source

MAKE YOUR SETTING UNIQUE

"The one thing emphasized in any creative writing course is 'write what you know,' and that automatically drives a wooden stake through the heart of imagination. If they really understood the mysterious process of creating fiction, they would say, 'You can write about anything you can imagine.'"
Tom Robbins

I can write a setting description of a small town in Vermont, and ten different writers can do the same. Several will be better than the others because those descriptions made that town unique.

How do you do this?

Research similar settings in real life, and use that research to make your setting seem genuine. I remember my grandmother, the wife of an Iowa corn farmer, telling me one day that the store I wanted to go to was “a spit and a holler down the road.” I have used that line often because it has an air of authenticity for any setting that takes place in the country.

Similarly, when I lived in Alaska for a year, the locals often said, “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” That, my friends, is a great descriptive line, and one that makes a small town in a cold climate very unique and believable.

MAKE YOUR SETTING FUNCTION LIKE A CHARACTER

There is a wonderful series of novels written by Craig Johnson about a small-town sheriff (Longmire) that takes place in central Wyoming. All of the books in that series use the Wyoming countryside to such an extent that the setting becomes an important character in the book. Blizzards blow in with such ferocity that they actually become the antagonist to the protagonist Longmire. Heat waves settle in, and tornadoes touch down, and all must be dealt with within the structure of the story.

If you can make an act of nature appear to be human, you are one fine writer.

How will your characters be affected by the setting?
How will your characters be affected by the setting? | Source

DOES YOUR SETTING ESTABLISH TONE?

If it doesn’t, it should!

I have mentioned the Dave Robicheaux series by James Lee Burke before, but I’m going to do it once again to drive home this important point.

Burke is a literary artist when it comes to describing the bayou country of Louisiana, and his descriptions of that setting deliver a strong message of beauty and danger bound together, so that, in his books, tranquility has sharp teeth and danger can appear peaceful.

I am also reminded of a Stephen King screenplay called “Storm of the Century.” King’s descriptions of a blizzard are so vivid that the storm actually seems sinister in nature. Read that again: the storm, an act of nature, takes on human characteristics, and thus establishes a dark tone throughout the screenplay.

WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU LIMIT THE SETTING?

I’ll explain through an example I’m just going to dream up on the spot.

What if your novel took place in a West Virginia mining community? We get to know the main characters, and we get a feeling for the general setting of the book. A couple chapters into the book, however, the main characters are trapped in a mine collapse, and the rest of the book takes place in a very restricted setting. How are the characters going to react to these limitations? What will those limitations do to the tone of the book?

WHERE ARE YOUR PROTAGONIST AND ANTAGONIST FROM?

Here we use settings from your characters’ past to dictate how they will react in the future. How do the settings of their childhoods influence their values and character?

We are all products of our past to a certain degree. Remember that when you are developing your main characters. How one person acts in a crisis is by no means how another will act, and their different reactions will greatly affect the outcome of your book.

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Just Something to Think About

Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.

Truman Capote

Believe me, I understand the importance of plot, and I am a huge advocate for strong characters who ooze depth. However, a writer simply cannot ignore setting. Ignoring setting is like a thoroughbred horse trainer being satisfied with winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but coming in tenth in the Belmont Stakes. Thirty-three horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Only eleven have won all three, and those eleven are legends in the sport.

Do you want to be a legend, or someone who just admires legends?

Just something to think about.

2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      A perfect example, Glimmer. In fact, so perfect, I wish I had thought of it. :) Thank you.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 3 years ago

      I've never really thought about this but it really is interesting when authors use setting as a character. It really does add to the story. Think about "Tara" in "Gone with the Wind", the whole story revolves around it.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Dianna. I think these tips can help anyone who wants to grow as a writer.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      Your examples are so exciting, each could be the beginning of a novel. I especially like the setting guidelines, it does stimulate the visual imagery as you read.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Deb, I had no idea how complicated it all was, until I tried writing one. Makes me respect those who are so good at it.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      There are so many important factors to a novel that must be appropriately tied in to transport the reader to that time, in the now, inside that book.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Genna, that is so nice of you to say. Thank you very much, and I hope you are having a great week.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 3 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      The setting is most important...nothing can exist in a vacuum. The setting is almost like another character in conveying the tone you have referred to in your article. I love your hubs, Bill...they are gold mines. :-)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Mel, I love your question and yes, I definitely think it is possible and something to strive for. Thanks for that observation/question...you've given me something to think about.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      I like your quote by Capote. Is it possible to describe a scene from say an impressionistic or cubist perspective, laying down the impressions the scene gives the writer rather than painting it in realistic detail, as say a Renaissance painter like Raphael would? Or even giving a distorted, somewhat warped perspective like Picasso if that suits the tone of the tale? I believe the point of a description is to put the reader in a particular place by perhaps summoning up strong emotions or perhaps memories of similar places or circumstances. Great hub, and I believe you are absolutely right that the setting has to establish a certain tone, and writers should be creative in how they go about it.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jo, that's an interesting observation, and you may well be right. Thank you for that.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 3 years ago from Tennessee

      Wonderful information and inspiration here.

      When I think of a master of settings, I always think of Thomas Hardy. Maybe because he was a poet he could do it so well.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you vkwok!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Heidi, I love how you draw parallels between writing and business. It is more applicable than many writers understand. Thanks for your insights.

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for sharing these important tips, Bill!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Though I don't write fiction (yet), using elements of setting to help people understand business scenarios is often essential! It helps people understand and, in many cases, relate to the lessons being presented. Voted up, useful and sharing of course! Cheers!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, you are so right. Weather definitely affects people. I have seen it for years. School teaching was a bit difficult during certain weather periods.

      It is a lazy weekend here. Sunny yesterday, rainy today, typical spring weather. Happily, Bev and I don't need sunshine to have fun.

      Thank you as always my dear. Enjoy the extra day off.

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Michael my friend, I don't know what you are doing here, but I'm glad you are. Thank you for taking the time to visit me, and I hope your weekend is filled with blessings.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Faith, I have never been there, but would love to see it one day. Now that I know you think it is great, I have added incentive.

      Thank you as always.

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      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      Hi bill! A setting has to be a vibrant part of a story. We all have our own settings and without them we can't function, therefore a story must do the same or the characters will not function.

      I firmly believe that setting and atmosphere or weather affect people's moods and reactions. You're a teacher; you know what kids are like when it's extra windy or when an oppressive storm is brewing. That's the sort of thing we should portray.

      Hope you're having a great weekend. We have our Whitsun Weekend here with Monday bank holiday and even the sun's out to celebrate so all is right with the world! Another brilliant hub, bill! Ann

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 3 years ago

      Hi.

      Yes indeed my friend, more than helpful. (What am I doing here anyway?) You are awesome.

      Have a blessed Memorial Day weekend .

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Anna, thank you so much for catching up. I appreciate your loyalty. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • Anna Haven profile image

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      I am just catching up...

      Sound advice again. A character without the right setting would never thrive. We couldn't love or hate them.

      You are always a good guide Bill.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Grey Temples. I appreciate the kind words.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, DDE!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Poolman, tie down your valuables and let's hope they don't blow away. :) Thank you my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you, Flourish! I hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      I love the city of Savannah, Georgia, and that is the setting in which my novel is taking place. So true, it is as if the city itself is a true character of the story and plays an integral part and lends itself to each character so well. We visited it on our 25th anniversary and was intrigued by its history and unique culture.

      Blessings for a lovely long weekend.

    • profile image

      Grey Temples 3 years ago

      I enjoy reading your Hubs as you provide such great tips. Thank you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Your ideas are helpful and always so true.

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 3 years ago

      Bill, it was hot and windy here in Arizona today, and I enjoyed every word of this hub.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      Those colloquial expressions are something else. I especially like your example about the horror story and the supermarket. It really drove home your point.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are very welcome, grand old lady, and thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ruby, I do the same thing. In fact, on this current novel, I went back for the first rewrite and did nothing but focus on scenes. :) Nice to know I'm not alone. Thanks and have a great weekend.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      I very much like the idea of letting the setting function like a character. Thank you for another super helpful hub:)

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      The setting of a story is the most difficult for me, i always seem to rush it. Thank's again for all of your tips, appreciate immensely all you do for us...

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It is my pleasure, Bk42author...thanks for the visit.

    • Bk42author profile image

      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Thank you for sharing this info!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Alexadry, it is my pleasure. Thank you so much for stopping by.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Bill, I don't know that I agree. Remember, great followings, and being published, are a matter of being in the right place at the right time, with a smattering of talent tossed into the mix. You have the talent.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 3 years ago from USA

      An awesome read for seasoned and aspiring writers, thanks for sharing these helpful tips.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      I started with setting, added characters, and let them tell the story. Works well for me, but will not likely ever develop a great following... ;-)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Marlene, that is a great example. Yes indeed, the setting can control the entire book if written properly. Thanks for that observation and have a great weekend my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      breakfastpop, that is my goal, so thank you for saying that.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sha, I suspect you would get on quite well without me, although you might not have nearly the fun. LOL He said with tongue in cheek. Thank you dear friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dora, if I may suggest, take pictures of different settings...that way you have something to look at when you are writing. :)

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 3 years ago from Northern California, USA

      I never thought about the setting being treated like a character. That makes a lot of sense. It's kind of like what the writers did in the movie, "Gravity." The setting was outer space and now after reading your hub, I can see how the setting really is a character.

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 3 years ago

      You are helping me grow as a writer and I am deeply appreciative. Voted up, useful, interesting and awesome.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Another great tip to hang onto in my novel writing journey, Bill. With each of these articles I see something I'm not doing but should be doing. I really appreciate the help. What would I do without you?

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Helpful details on setting, which is difficult for me because I am not observant naturally. I remember more of what I hear than what I see, and I think my writing reflects that. However, I continue to learn from your tips and this is helpful. Thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Vellur! Settings are crucial if we want our readers to truly enjoy the story.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you, Michelle! Greatly appreciated.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 3 years ago from Dubai

      Great tips as you say writing about settings we know and are familiar with will make the story genuine.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      The next time I plan one of my stories, I'll remember this. Thumbs up!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      True words, Liz. I wish all my students were as teachable as you are. LOL In truth, you didn't need me at all. You are an accomplished writer who understands her craft.

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      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      This is a very helpful hub and this point is a good one to drive home, one that I love hearing often. Even though we are taught this when we learn to write, it's easy to forget these valuable points...and I've been guilty of it too. There's no room for ambiguity when writing; as readers don't know the writer or what they are referring to. Thanks for sharing!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks, Janine. I appreciate you stopping by even though you really aren't interested in this right now. Have a great Friday.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Donna, you hit the nail on the head. Great description of the perfect setting. Thank you!

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 3 years ago from New York, New York

      Great food for thought on how to maximize using settings when writing and thank you Bill for sharing. Have a wonderful, long, holiday weekend now!

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      Donna Brown 3 years ago from Alton, Missouri

      Another fantastic hub, Bill! I think you know you have the right setting when you know that the story could not happen anywhere else. The setting so interplays with the plot and the characters that it would be difficult to divide them.