Set the Stage with Setting
Setting is a novel element that grounds your reader. Without it, your characters are floating in space. It acts like another character in your mystery, providing physical clues. But it also creates atmosphere, reveals character personal traits, and gives your reader a sense of place.
Filmmakers know how important setting is. They scout for the right location for each scene in the film. You can do the same thing for your story.
Every scene in your story takes place somewhere—a busy street in the afternoon, a dark and empty street at night, the protagonist’s kitchen, a suspect’s office.
When you plan out the action of a scene, don’t forget to plan the location.
Author P.D. James believed setting was the spark for a novel.
Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it’s always the setting. I think I have a strong response to what I think of as the ‘spirit of a place.’
You may not start with setting, but you need it every scene.
How to Scout Your Locations
Filmmakers hire people to find the perfect location for story scenes. You can do your own footwork.
If your setting is local, get out with your camera and start collecting images for settings in your story. If friends have the perfect bedroom or kitchen for a scene, be brave with your writing life, ask if you can take photos.
Ask friends, both in real life and online like social media, for location ideas. Independent filmmakers do this with regularity. It works for authors, too.
You may not have physical access to a location, but you can search online for images.
The Story and the Scenes
Once you have a good idea of the overall setting for your story and know the location of each scene, use details to make your settings part of the story.
Rather than long descriptive passages focus on details.
Details bring the scene alive for your readers. They will empathize with the physical and emotional responses your characters experience. Your focus on the details enriches your reader’s sense of place. The details bring them into the story.
Long descriptive passages take readers out of the story. Practice breaking up a long paragraph and, instead, scatter those details throughout the scene. Your reader has a sense of being there, in the scene. Your setting will have a stronger impact than a long description.
Setting Research Pays Off In Your Story
The research you do for settings adds verisimilitude to your story. The details emphasize the unique place—not just any kitchen, but this character’s kitchen.
Setting pulls your reader into the story. The details make each scene come alive. Take the time to locate your settings and add specific details. Your readers will appreciate your work
Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash
Give Your Reader a Sense of Place
Setting is more than a backdrop for a story. A backdrop is a painted cloth hung at the back of the stage to create the appearance of a larger scene on stage. In a novel, you have room to bring your setting to life by placing your characters in the scene and interacting with the world around them.
Setting gives readers a sense of place. The more you integrate the setting the deeper connection you build with your reader. Your story makes them feel as if they are there. As you integrate physical details of the setting into the story, your reader empathizes with your characters, especially your sleuth.
Rather than a paragraph explaining (telling) the setting, scatter setting details throughout a scene. Use the five senses - taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight - to get your reader feeling the setting.
Here are four ways to get those details into a scene without a long descriptive passage.
How many television mysteries have you seen with a full moon at night shining through tree branches? Bang! You know it’s a mystery. This image is overused so I don’t recommend the full moon through tree branches. But, you can set the mood of threat, with dark spaces like the woods, a dank basement, or even the proverbial graveyard. A quick sentence can set the mood without slowing down your reader with a long, descriptive passage.
When your sleuth reacts to the setting, you build empathy for your reader. Get your sleuth and characters react to the physical details through sensory imagery. When you use these details, setting becomes like another character in your story influencing character actions. Jane Harper used these details effectively in her debut mystery, The Dry. And James Lee Burke’s characters interact with the Louisiana bayous and New Orleans city streets in his Dave Robicheaux series, beginning with his first mystery, The Neon Rain.
Setting can set off emotions in your characters. Frustration in the cold, lethargy in the heat, discomfort in a sterile room with no personal touches and other emotional responses to the setting can cloud your sleuth’s reasoning missing important clues that appear later as signals to the villain.
Setting is a treasure trove of obstacles for your sleuth to overcome. From tripping in a messy room just when she needs to confront the villain to fainting in the heat, your setting details mess up your sleuth’s life. They are useful in scenes that need an obstacle to raise tension.
Use Setting Details
Specifics make your story come alive. It doesn’t matter where you place your story. Your hometown, a far-away exotic location, an historical country manor, a big city all have the ingredients your need to let setting add impact. Michael Connelly sets Harry Bosch in L.A. Place names, street names, sounds, and tastes all add to making the city of Los Angeles part of each story.
Your challenge as a writer is to illustrate the details that impact your characters. Show emotional depth when your protagonist love the sunset over the mountains/plains/coastline. Place a chase scene on a crowded highway with a soccer mom with an SUV full of kids impeding your sleuth’s high-speed chase. Hide a clue in the detritus on the forest floor. When your sleuth interacts with the environment, you give your reader a sense of place.
The Hidden Treasures in Your Setting
When I first wrote mysteries, I was in awe of writers who could create clues out of the setting. I read Pompeii by Robert Harris and was astonished at how the clues in the story were directly related to volcanic action, mystifying the young aqueduct engineer.
The best way to discover clues in your setting is to go into the story. See what your protagonist sees. It’s easy to focus on dialogue and action and miss the ways setting can enhance your mystery. The details of the setting add breadth to your story and are the best place to plant clues.
Key places to add clues from setting.
While you are painting the big picture of your story, zoom in on details. The create a realism in your story and are a rich source of clues.
Focus on sensory details. What does your sleuth see, taste, hear, touch, or smell.
Go On A Treasure Hunt for Your Clues
Once you paint the broad strokes of your setting, the details bring the setting alive and are the perfect source for clues. Whether your story is set long ago and far away or in your hometown, spend time looking for details.
As you go through all the images, focus on details. Because 80 per cent of research is background, know that not everything you see will end up in your story. Be on the lookout for unusual details. Those are the details your sleuth notices.
Take it further. Does your perpetrator use a special scent? Get a sample so you can describe the scent in your own words.
Unique Clues Enrich Your Story
At the beginning, your search may seem overwhelming. But, as you practice looking - Yes, this! No, doesn’t work - you will get better at finding intriguing details to serve as clues in your mystery.
Setting - A Force In Your Story
Setting is like a character in your story that has no dialogue. Setting not only grounds your characters and your readers, setting interacts with characters to enhance your story. Setting is what makes readers feel like they are there.
Beginning writers often overlook the depth that setting adds to a story. Setting embellishes the storyline and characters.
Know Your Setting
First, know your setting. Don’t guess. Even if your setting is your hometown, you may need to do research. Remember, 80% of research never enters your story, but you, the writer, know the details.
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Elements of Setting
As an author you have many ways to include setting in your story because setting includes a variety of elements. You can use them all to give readers a sense of where your characters are in place and time.
Although you may think setting is the place where the story takes place, be sure to include all the elements of setting in your story. You’ll give your readers a sense of where your characters are and how they move through the elements of setting to achieve their goal.
These are main attributes of setting to color your story. Depending on your story other setting details such as population density or ancestral values from another culture can enrich your story even more.
How to Integrate Setting in Your Story
Setting is just about anything in the space-time continuum of your story. With so many details at hand, the choice for writers is how and where to add those setting details in the story.
Long, detailed descriptions are not the way to go. They slow down the story. Your goal is to keep readers reading. The more you integrate setting into the story, the less likely your reader will notice and skip.
Slips, falls, sneezes, social faux pas in unfamiliar culture or place, terrifying heights, dark caves, tornadoes, storms, rough waves, earthquake, menacing clouds. Your setting will have enough detail to add to every scene.
One caveat, be careful with extra detail that feels unnatural. Your heroine may teeter on the top of a 40-story building. It’s much more likely she will think 40 stories than 404 feet. Unless your have established your character as a compulsive number freak, an exact measurement like 404 feet will sound unnatural.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writers Write A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.