Creating Complex Settings

11:46 AM





It's week #2 of my four-week series on the parts of a complex story! Last week, I talked about Creating Complex Characters.

So you've got your complex characters, which is all well and good - the story can't survive without them. But what good are they if they're only wandering around in a grey void? You might not think that setting is all that important, but it totally is. It's a huge part of the story, and also a particularly hard one, even if you like writing descriptions. Setting shapes your characters: the way they interact with it and each other, how well they're able to cope, what they use to get out of a trick situation. It's also important to the plot: what sorts of resources are available to help with the plot, how easy it is for your characters to move from one place to another, and so on. I'm  not an expert on setting - I'm not hugely fond of descriptions, and I don't think I'm very good at them either, so I'll use example bits from other books that I thought did a good job with setting. And now, here's some tips for setting up a complex setting.

A good setting:

Should be established right away. Picking up a new book is kind of like walking through a portal, or taking a ride in the TARDIS. Most of the time, you don't know exactly where you're going to end up, even if you have a vague idea of the story beforehand. You have to trust the author to let you know where you are as quickly as possible, so you can get your bearing and step right into a vivid story. So, as a writer, it's generally a good rule to try and establish the setting right away, even if it's just a few details (and it probably should be.)

Example: from The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
"...Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it's pummeled by countless hooves. " 

This is the second paragraph of the book, and it immediately gives you the setting and the mood of the story in just two sentences. From those sentences, we learn a lot of useful, grounding things: It's cold, there's an ocean and a beach, the weather's probably bad, and there are horses. The author immediately gives us an idea of where we're at, so we feel secure and can better anticipate the rest of the story.

A good setting sets the mood. Generally, the setting is chosen for a reason. A book set in a magical forest probably won't have the same feel as a book set in a spaceship or a small town or a video game. The feel and mood of your story, and how well you capture it, depends a lot on the setting. Through those little setting details, you can give readers a good glimpse at what the story is going to feel like. Even if it's a peaceful setting where something bad is about to happen, you can still create suspense even within that peaceful setting. It's all about the details, as usual.

Example: from The Maze Runner by James Dashner
" He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air. " 
Even that first line does a great job of giving us the setting and the mood of the story, doesn't it? Just a few key words and we're propelled into a new world that's unfamiliar to both us and the main character, apparently. New life, which could mean any number of things and does a great job of capturing the confusion of the beginning of the story. Standing up. That's an interesting detail, because it makes you wonder why it needs to be specified. Cold darkness. Why is he in the dark? Stale, dusty air. Can't you just taste it? It's all about details. 

A good setting uses all the senses. Of course you need a visual description. How else would you get your bearings? But you don't just see when you walk into a new place. You're hit with all the new smells and tastes and sounds and textures, too. A good setting should do this more subtly, perhaps, not all at once, but definitely give you more than just visuals. The goal should be to submerge the reader, not give them a screen to watch the story from.

Example: from Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
" Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house's stone walls. Though still half-asleep, she was aware of the late autumn chill hovering just outside her blanket, and she wanted to curl up tighter and sleep like a bear through frost and night and day. " 

(this is a great book, by the way. You should read it.) This doesn't give us all the senses, but it gives us more than just a visual, doesn't it? We don't see the goats, we hear the goats. It's dark, but we know it's morning and it's cold because we feel it. Miri knows that the goats can smell the dawn, so maybe she can, too. The whole paragraph has a homey, sleepy sort of feeling, and I don't think it would've been the same without the descriptions.

Obviously, the amount of description depends on the type of story it is (fantasy generally uses more description than contemporary, and so on) but you don't want to overdo it. So a few good hints to remember when crafting a rich setting are:


  • It's all in the details - you don't need huge, flowery descriptions; a few key details can do wonders for setting the scene. 
  •  You should introduce the setting as soon as possible - preferably within the first paragraph or two. Ground your readers quickly! 
  • Your setting will reflect the mood of your story - a peaceful garden isn't likely to be the setting of a horror scene, but an eerily quiet one might. 
  • Use senses other than visuals - as an exercise, put a blind character in your setting, and describe it from their POV. They won't be able to see anything, so you'll have to discover other ways to let the setting seep in. This will deepen your descriptions. 

And that's it for today! I hope you found this helpful - just remember, I'm not an expert by any means, and this is just what I've found in my own experience reading and writing. You can definitely play around with it. Read books and pay attention to the setting: what do you like about how it's presented? What don't you like? There are lots of different ways of creating a complex setting and presenting it on the page, and you can definitely play around until you find whatever works for you and your writing style.

Why don't you tell me: What's your favorite book setting? Mine right now is the lavish world presented in Marissa Meyer's Cinder. How do you feel about descriptions - do you like them short and sweet, or longer? Comment away.

11 comments

  1. YOU READ PRINCESS ACADEMY TOO

    I loved that book. XD

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  2. Oh, and really great post. Setting is sorta that thing I tend to forget bout or procrastinate on. XD

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    1. Thanks! I have issues with it too...I'm not a huge fan of descriptions. xD

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  3. This post is great!! I completely agree that setting is necessary. I've read books before in which the setting was not established, and I felt as though I was drowning in a sea of words with no sight of land.

    All of the quotes you used were very descriptive and set strong moods and tones. I now have a few more books to put on my To Read list.

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    1. Thanks for reading! I've definitely read books like that too, and it always annoys me - you had a good way of putting it. (and you should definitely read all those books. I love them. Just saying.)

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  4. This reminds me of my favorite how-to-write book. It's very clear and I think it's going to help me a lot in my own writing. Thanks!

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  5. I love this post! I usually hate long, tedious descriptions of places and things because I have a bad habit of speed reading so it just slows me down. Lol. But it definitely does help in the long run. :)

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