There’s no doubt that setting is a fundamental aspect of all kinds of writing. A solid setting can improve the quality of a story immensely, while a poorly developed setting can instantly turn readers away.
But knowing how important a good setting is doesn’t make it easy to write, especially when you’re trying to describe a place you’ve never been. If you’re finding it difficult to incorporate your setting seamlessly into a story, here are seven tips that can help.
1. Use Google Maps’ Street View to virtually walk through your setting
Never been to Paris but want to set your novel there? Street View on Google Maps is going to be your lifesaver. Street View allows you to virtually stroll thought the streets of every major city from the comfort of your own couch.
If you’re writing a story not set in our world, this tip can still be useful to you. You can still use Street View to draw inspiration from real locations that have a similar look or feel. For example, if your story is set in a water-based town, take a look at a place like Venice to inspire you.
Google Maps even has a feature called 'Treks', which allows you to virtually explore a variety of locations in more detail than ever before. For example, the Venice 'Trek' includes options to use Street View with added historical context, via different modes of transport, through the eyes of artists exploring locations inspired by famous artworks, and so on.
This is a great research tool to use when you aren't able to visit a particular location in person.
2. Do your research to add authentic touches
A lot of writers travel to locations they want to write about, and while a nice ‘research’ holiday sounds appealing to everyone, you can get a lot of the same information without getting out of your pyjamas.
Look up the websites for the places your characters frequent – cafes, libraries, museums etc. What are their opening hours? What are the most popular items on a restaurant’s menu? What are the prices like? There are plenty of other things you can research to add detail to your settings, including things like a city’s local newspaper and television guides.
Your research needs to be well-rounded in order to paint the most accurate picture. Make sure you look into the location's history and geography, as well as the smaller details like the average temperature and common weather occurrences for the different seasons.
You might not use every detail, but the more you research, the more information you have at your disposal while writing.
The internet is full of information, so make sure you utilise this resource to its full potential. You can also read history books, watch some documentaries, and even look at travel brochures and blogs to ensure your research is well-rounded.
It might seem like you're gathering an abundance of information, but it's the details that add the layer of authenticity you want your realist fiction to have.
3. Use subtext to enhance reader experience
Writers often use subtext when writing dialogue – a character might say one thing, while their body language and tone (the subtext) says something completely different – but it can also be a useful tool for describing your setting. Utilising subtext to convey meaning through your settings can make your scenes more gripping.
An easy way to use subtext when describing settings is to mirror the emotions a character is feeling. You can show your readers the way your characters are feeling by the aspects of the setting they choose to notice.
Picture a girl about to walk into a coffee shop for a blind date. If she describes the hot and sticky air, the noisy blenders and the dirty tables, it's clear that she's uncomfortable. The subtext of the setting means it's obvious to the reader the character doesn't expect the date to go very well.
4. Use all five senses to described a well-rounded setting
We live in a sensory world, so using all five senses will give your audience a more engaging reading experience.
It’s important to not only describe what a setting looks like, but also what it sounds, smells, tastes and feels like. You don’t want to use all five senses at once in a single block of description, but rather pick and choose what aspects of the setting you describe.
To authentically describe the feel of a setting that exists in our world, try searching for blogs from both tourists and locals, or reading other books set in that particular location. Remember, each character will experience the same setting in a different light than the other characters, so it’s important to explore different perspectives.
Take a look at this example from James Joyce's short story, Araby.
When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent streets. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness."
The narrator describes the way the school looks (sight), the way the cold air feels (touch), the way the shouts echoed (sound), and the odours of the ashpits (smell).
5. Use visual aids to help you picture your setting
It can be difficult to keep track of settings in your head, so using visual aids is a great way to help you remember where everything is and exactly what it looks like. The easier you can visualise your setting, the better you'll be able to describe it.
If your setting is a real location, you can use maps and images to keep track more easily, but if your setting is entirely fictional, it can be a little more difficult. However, there are still visual aids you can use to help keep track of your locations.
Drawing your own map is a great way to visualise where each location fits within your setting as a whole. You can also collate images that inspire your setting to create a 'mood board', either physically with printed images, or through online platforms such as Pinterest.
6. Use action to describe settings
Most people don't want to read whole paragraphs of description all at once, so it's important that you spread your descriptions evenly throughout your story. A good way to do this is to use action to describe your settings.
Consider a poor, teenage girl visiting her wealthy best friend's house for the first time. Instead of describing everything she sees as soon as she walks in, write snippets of description as she moves through the setting.
She might trail a hand along the banister, sink down into a velvet couch, or wiggle her toes in the soft carpet. Instead of stating there are luxurious mirrors, describe how the girl feels seeing her reflection in such a grand room.
Here's an example from Edgar Allen Poe's short story, The Fall of the House of Usher.
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher."
Here, the narrator describes their surroundings as they journey through it. This passage would be a lot less effective if it read as a paragraph of description only.
7. Imagine your story playing out on the screen
If you're stuck at how to introduce a new setting into your work, thinking of your writing as a movie or television show can help you get started. Stories told on-screen often introduce setting in the same formula: establishing shot, long shot, medium shot to close-up.
If you're a Friends fan, you would have seen this formula many times. Every scene in Central Perk starts with an establishing shot from outside the cafe. This shot lets the audience know where the scene will take place.
The establishing shot is followed by a long shot, featuring the entire table and couches where the characters usually sit. This shot gives the setting more detail and shows the audience who is in the scene. Finally, the camera zooms into medium shots and close-ups that focus on the characters.
This formula can easily be adapted to writing. For example, if you're describing the town your characters live in, you might start off with a few sentences on the big picture of the town, before zooming in to the street and then the house, finally moving to a specific room.
Remember that these tips are not rules for describing setting, but are designed to give you a helpful starting point if you're stuck.