On Writing: The Importance of Setting

Novel WritingDeborah J Ledford, in “Captivating Settings,” a section from Novel Writing Tips and Techniques From Authors of Second Wind Publishing, stresses the importance of setting, of putting readers at ease and giving them a visual at the beginning of each chapter, especially the first time the location is presented. As the author of the popular Deputy Hawk/Inola Walela thriller series, Deborah J Ledford knows what she is talking about. We do need to be aware of our surroundings.  In real life, if we were to awaken in an empty room — or heaven forbid, hanging in empty space — with no indication of where we are, even the most equanimous would be uncomfortable. The rest of us, of course, would be panicked out of our minds.

Although being unacquainted with where we are in a story wouldn’t panic us, it would prevent us from settling into the novel. We’d be searching the pages warily wondering where we are and even worse, wondering if we want to continue reading.

In the past couple of days I had the dubious honor of reading the first chapters of two new books on the market, and combined, they show the importance of setting a scene and doing it properly.

The first book had absolutely no setting. It was as if the characters were hanging in the air, held to the page only by the thin strings of their words. There was no “there” there, and I had no desire to keep reading. If the writer didn’t care enough about me as a reader to let me know where I was, I certainly didn’t care about the story.

The second book had too much setting, describing the initial scene at great length with lots of awkward constructions using “had”s and “you”s, and meanderings into the past, that I had no interest whatsoever in the story, even though I did know where I was. Instead of describing the setting using vague and anecdotal constructions, she could have used the setting in a more dynamic way, evoking mood, atmosphere, making the setting part of the action. Most importantly, she should have searched for a couple of telling details — the sights, sounds, smells, feel, tastes that evoke the entire feeling of the setting.

In the 1980s, bookracks in grocery stores were full of gothic romances. Perhaps you remember seeing those covers: a brooding mansion in the background, a woman in a diaphanous gown running away from the house, looking back at it in fear. Despite their triteness, those were dynamic covers: the pictorial description of the house, the effect on the character (fear), and how the character reacted (running away.) Written description can be as vibrant as those covers; it just means taking the description a step further and filtering it through the senses of a character.

In this example from my novel More Deaths Than One, we already know that Bob and Kerry are in a hotel in Bangkok, but now we get an impression of the hotel room from Kerry’s reaction.

Bob opened his eyes, then squeezed them shut against the light. From the heaviness of the air and the brightness of the day, he presumed it was mid-morning. He opened his eyes again and this time managed to keep them open.

He turned his head toward Kerry. She lay on her back, hands behind her head, eyes focused on the ceiling. Following her gaze, he realized she was staring at one of the ubiquitous green lizards. Her body vibrated with excitement.

He smiled to himself. Leave it to Kerry to be thrilled with this small reminder they were no longer in Colorado.

“Isn’t this great?” she said in a hushed voice. “We have our own private watch lizard.”

Bob brushed away a fly buzzing around his head. “We could use a few more.”

Later, the description of the hotel becomes an integral part of the Bob’s worry.

The hotel was built around a courtyard accessible from all the rooms. Bob took his breakfast out to the courtyard, but couldn’t enjoy the fountain, the bushes, the flowers. He kept stealing glances at the windows, wondering if anyone was watching him.

When dark clouds rolled across the sky, pushing a stifling humidity before them, he took refuge in his room. It did not have air-conditioning, but the slowly revolving ceiling fan offered a modicum of relief.

He paced the floor, feeling as if he were a stranger in this land. It didn’t matter that he had lived here for sixteen years, he realized; any place would seem alien when he wasn’t with Kerry. She was his home.

He tried not to worry about her all alone on the streets, but as time passed, the worry grew too strong to ignore.

Then the rains fell. There was no light spattering gradually increasing in intensity as in Colorado, but an abrupt opening of the skies as if someone had turned on a spigot.

Because of the emotions evoked, the brief descriptions in no way stop the forward movement of the story.

Other posts you might be interested in:

Describing a Scene in an Interesting Way
Describing a Winter Scene
Describing a Winter Scene — Again
Describing a Winter Scene — Again. And Yet Again.
Describing the Nondescript


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

One Response to “On Writing: The Importance of Setting”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    I hear you, Pat. Setting is important, and how you go about doing it can either make it a great novel or ensure that the reader won’t get beyond page one. Which is why I usually explain the setting within the first couple of paragraphs of a story. If I don’t, I feel like I’m not doing my job as a writer and making it difficult for the reader to enjoy the story.

Please leave a comment. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: