#ContactForm1 { display: none ! important; }

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Make Your Settings Work for You (and Against Your Characters)

Setting is just where your characters do the interesting stuff. Settings are ordinary. They’re just there so your reader can picture what’s going on. Right?

That’s what I used to think.

I took an online class called How to Revise Your Novel that helped me take a step back from my story and really see my setting.

I asked myself, “Why here?” If you don’t have a good reason for putting your scene in the park, then put it somewhere better. A place with conflict.

Maybe your character doesn’t want to be there. (Why not? What would make them go there? Now that they’re here, do they want to leave?)

Maybe the setting is dangerous. (Is the park a war zone? Are the squirrels rabid?) Work your setting so it’s compelling, so that things aren’t what they seem. Give your reader a reason to say, “Oh, I hope they don’t have to go back there!” or “Oh, I hope we get to see that place again.”

As I work through the first draft of my WIP, I'm noticing that I'm SO much slower than I was with my other novels. It was frustrating! Then I went back and read what I wrote and you know what? There's setting! Real, meaningful setting. It stands against my protagonist and makes her work hard for what she wants. And you know what else? I didn’t have to work at making it vivid or detailed. The conflict did it for me.

Let me show you what I mean.

My character, Ivy Thorn, is trapped in a fairy tale and wants to get home. So she runs away from the castle and her fairy-captor into the enchanted forest. (This is first draft stuff, so please excuse the quality.)

My head fills with questions-Where am I? How did I get here? And most important: How do I get home?

But all of those thoughts are quickly replaced with curses when I step on a pinecone, God’s little bed of nails wrapped up in a tiny package. I hop on my other foot twice and keep moving. The faster I move my feet, the less time they’ll spend on something painful. And there are a lot of painful things out here-rocks, broken twigs, thorns, pine needles (There’s a reason ‘needle’ is in the name.), and a whole bunch of other things I don’t take the time to identify. My feet are in a constant state of varying amounts of pain. Needless to say, it sucks.

I leap over a decaying log and plunge deeper into the woods, not even checking over my shoulder. With any luck, that fairy will plow into a low-hanging branch.

The canopy blocks out any sun that might’ve pushed through the clouds. I’m in the dark, with barely any visibility to move forward. My foot catches on something and gets a nasty scrape. Chin, meet hard-packed dirt.

“Oof.” I roll onto my back with a groan and wipe the soggy leaves off my cheek. My feet are both scraped and swollen, not to mention as black and dirty as the forest floor. But one of them is bleeding from the rotting log I just tripped over. How lovely.

I hobble on, since there’s no point in stopping in the middle of these crappy woods. It’s not long, though, before I’m staring at a fallen log. A very familiar one.

Now, I’m no Sacajawea, but I know I’m not going in circles. That’s the same log I tripped over, but I’ve made a straight line since then. And I think I jumped over this same log before that. The ferns at the broken base are the same, aside from being a lot more rained-on.

Is it possible that I’ve completely lost my mind?

See all those details? They hurt Ivy. They make her wish she were somewhere else, but she wants to get home so she endures it. The setting causes conflict. I think that’s what people mean when they tell you to make your setting one of your characters.

I also found what other people had to say on the subject:
Katrina Stonoff wrote a fantastic article that really made an impact on me called Make Your "Where" Memorable. She helped me to see beyond the typical and bring out those details that you wouldn't expect, but that really draw the reader in.

Enrich Your Descriptions by learning how to develop you writer's eyes. There's more to a setting than what you see with the naked eye. How would you see a scene if you were a child? If you were in a hurry? If you were objective? This post goes deeper to even discuss connotation, which is definitely worth a read if you're not familiar with it.

If you haven't delved into The Bookshelf Muse, I highly recommend some exploration. Scroll down the right-hand column for a list of settings. Click the link for "Park" (or whatever is relevant to your story) and you'll be taken to an extensive list of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures you might find there. I use this site all the time to make my scenes pop.

So, do have a scene that needs some shaking up? How can you take an ordinary setting and make it work for you?

Emily Casey is a writer from Tallahassee who chases two crazy kids around the house all day before collapsing in front of her computer. She has a blog with lots of helpful writer tips and a few mixed-up mentionings about her life. She’s on Twitter @EmilyCaseysMuse and has a brand new Facebook fan page.


  1. Great article. I've been going back and forth on whether or not to take that same course by Holly Lisle. Do you recommend it?

    Even though that was first draft, your voice shines through :)

  2. Holly's courses helped shape me as a writer. I wrote my story about how they helped me here: http://emilycaseysmusings.blogspot.com/p/story-how-i-became-better-writer.html

    Thanks for the compliment. I always appreciate comments. :)