Why Setting Is Important

Setting is crucial, Sweetheart.

When properly handled, setting reveals not just where the characters are, but who they are.  What’s your home town? Where have you lived since? What if you’d never been to any of those places? What would you be and how would you think?  See that? The setting forms the character and the story.

And yet, these days it’s often neglected entirely. We have gotten used to watching good TV and are particular focused on plot and dialogue. This is most often the case in YA. Well here are some suggestions that may help you negotiate setting in your fiction.

1. Write it separately: If you don’t want to interrupt the flow of your writing,  work the setting in as you revise. This will help you maintain that fit of productivity. You may also be better able to identify opportunities for working in setting when you are rereading.

2.  Go there: It’s best to know the place you are describing. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to buy a plane ticket and fly to the bahamas, especially since your story doesn’t even take place there! You just need to give yourself a strong sense of your setting. You can do this by traveling or living there, or through  thorough research. In the case of fantasy this may mean writing about it extensively before you work it into the novel, so that all the rules, the layout, etc. are firmly established beforehand. You can also base your imaginary world on a place that you know well and then build upon it.

3.Don’t use it until you need to. Sometimes authors feel like they need to create a logistical layout of the cafeteria and the seating plan before the dialogue that takes place there.  Unless there’s a really compelling reason to tell us where everyone is setting, you can leave it out. A schematic is not the same thing as setting a scene, and it’s usually not fun to read. If there is a really strong reason to set the stage–like there are linen tablecloths and a wandering violinist–you should do it, otherwise, shorthand works. We all remember the cafeteria. I can still smell the wax beans.

4. Bits and Pieces: As I said above, setting can be given in shorthand–a succinct sentence here or there that lets us know where the characters are.  ”As he walked by the jocks’ tables he covered his face with his arm, so he wouldn’t have to smell the sloppy joes and B.O.” A sentence used as a cue will work in many cases to establish where the character is and how he is feeling. You don’t need a full paragraph.

5. Wait for the quiet moments: If you are working on a particularly plotty  novel, and you’ve got a good, fast-paced draft down, you may want to insert a few quieter moments.  This is a perfect opportunity to weave in setting. It will give your readers a breather from the action and an opportunity to get to know your characters and their place.

For some more excellent pointers on approaching setting, take a look at Deborah Halverson’s post on Hungry Mountain.

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