All writers have their preferred methods for inspiration, and for me, it's always been setting. I visit a place and find story there, which is why travel is so bound up in my creative process, and why my books often span the globe.
But other writers have other strengths … and weaknesses. One of the most common issues for new fiction writers is “talking heads in an empty white room,” where character and dialogue are fine but the setting is almost entirely missing. In today's article, Joseph Bendoski shares some ways to write better settings.
When most writers think about setting they imagine where the events of the plot will take place, but there is a lot you can do to make the setting more than just concrete details and scenery to a story.
Making the setting more interesting in itself can add a lot to the dynamics of the story.
You can boil this down two simple questions:
- Where is the most interesting place this event can happen within reason?
- What is the most interesting prop/background event you can logically put in the scene?
Examples of Something Interesting
An Interesting Place
Question One: Where is the most interesting place this event can happen within reason?
Sure the Death Star might be the most interesting place just about any story event can occur, but it doesn’t make sense for a lot of them to take place on the Death Star. You need something that works in your story world, and current place in the plot.
The movie “Remember the Titans” is about a mixed-race football during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement. There is a classic scene that takes place on the battlefield of Gettysburg where one of the worst conflicts of the Civil War took place.
I don’t remember what the coach told them in the movie, but I remember the power of that setting. Well chosen and interesting, not just for what it was, but what it meant to the story.
This element leverages the history of the location to make it more interesting to the audience because the truth is that it’s just cemetery and park now, but knowing the history of the setting is what makes it interesting.
Props and Background
Sometimes due to the logic of the story, there isn’t really an interesting setting you can put the scene at. This leads us the next question: What is the most interesting prop/background event you can logically put in the scene?
There is a great scene by Stephen King that takes place in a hospital waiting room. A dull setting, that didn’t have much to it but was essential in the narrative of the book.
What did King do to enliven the setting? He created an interesting background event. A mother complaining to doctors that her son’s excrement had turned the color of strawberry ice cream. It’s a striking little drama that plays out in the background while the main characters waits to hear back.
It makes the dull setting of the hospital more interesting. It’s also based on a real epidemic that swept America in the 1970s.
There are other elements and props that can be used to bring a setting to life. Statues, pictures, or awards. The latter two can often reveal details about characters and their pasts without exposition and flashbacks.
I visited a restaurant with a used napkin framed on the wall, drawn on it was a beautiful depiction of a scene from the very restaurant. It was signed by Pablo Picasso.
This was not a high end fancy restaurant in New York or L.A. It was small and cozy and for some reason, Picasso decided to eat there, and as he sat he drew, and when he finished he used the very napkin he’d been drawing on and left it there on the table. It was something dull and ordinary in a dull and ordinary place; a napkin in a restaurant, but it was made interesting.
Theme in Setting
I’ve heard of Hollywood screenwriters that say once they find the theme of their story they print it on paper and tape it to their computers so they are thinking about it the whole time they are writing.
Adding a theme to your setting can help them be more interesting. The human brain is wired to look for patterns. We see faces in clouds, and food, we find patterns in random sounds that seem similar to music. When you start adding elements of theme to your setting there is a deeper level of patterns for your readers to find in each scene.
Examples of Theme in Setting
You can already see theme in the first setting we mentioned, when “Remember the Titans” visit Gettysburg.
The theme of the movie is hope. In one iconic scene, the characters are talking in a movie theater. The camera angle of one shot shows only the dark theater with the single projector flickering in the background, the well-known reference to hope as the light at the end of the tunnel. I’d tell you to imagine how you would write that but you don’t have to, The Shawshank Redemption is based on a novel by Stephen King.
Whenever we deal with theme the concern of being didactic comes up. No one wants to read and book feel like they are getting a moral lecture. The technique recommended to deal with this issue is to explore both theme and counter theme. So every scene in the Shawshank Redemption either is about hope or it’s counter, hopelessness.
Adding theme to your settings will give them more purpose, and add another level to your writing, making each new scene more interesting.
Mood in Setting
The description is the time when metaphors, comparative examples, and word choice shine. There is no place more common to have description than when describing a new setting.
When picking your metaphors don’t just use what describes something effectively, but also look at the mood that is invoked by them.
Examples of mood
A classic song states: “Where the viaduct looms like a bird of doom.” This is more than just description of the physical appearance of the viaduct. It communicates a mood as well. It tells readers how to approach a scene.
I had a teacher illustrate this concept by writing two columns of partial words on the board. We could only read the first letter of each word followed by dashes for each following letter. Above each column was a word. One read “Family,” the other “War.”
Several students left the room and then were asked to fill in the blank words. Those that saw the word “Family” said “Home” for the word that started with ‘H.’ Those that saw the word “War” said “hate” for the letter ‘H.’ The word at the top of the column changes their perceptions.
Psychologists call it priming, and writers do it through mood setting, word choice, and foreshadowing.
Pick your words to communicate what you want the scene to be about on an emotional level. For most ideas, there are several words you can use to communicate but each has it’s own emotional and social connotations.
Imagine we are describing a character and we need to pick one of the following word/descriptions: trying new things, exploring her sexuality, promiscuous, slut.
Each word/phrase could be describing the exact same behavior, but the emotional and societal meaning behind them is different. The right word can put your audience into a frame of mind that can strengthen the tension of a scene.
Television and movie producers have background music for this, writers have word choice.
A great example is from the television show Turn. The theme song opens with these words, “There’s snakes in the garden…”
The metaphor and word choice prime the audience for an intriguing story of spies and secrets.
My change. Taking out the music components there no reason to be constrained by the notes, so I would change out the word “is” for “slither.”
Snakes slither in the garden.
Pick the opening description scene from one of your chapters and try these three techniques and see how it looks when you're done.
How do the settings in your novels reflect the theme? Have you, or will you, used some of the suggestions above when writing settings? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Joseph Bendoski is the author of When the Sky Falls and a Co-host of the Start Writing podcast. You can find his book on Amazon.com. The podcast is available on iTunes and any other place you find podcasts. Articles concerning writing craft, and the psychology behind media persuasion are available on his website Joseph-Bendoski.com. You can also pick up the first half of his book in text or audio on his website for free.