(Painting by Caspar David Friedrich)
The Secret Power of Setting
Want to know a secret? I’ll tell you two.
They’re both techniques about writing a story’s settings. Its locations. The first technique you may already be using. If so, bravo! The second, however, is not well understood.
Setting is such an important element of our craft. From Harry Potter’s enchanted Hogwarts to Dune’s parched planet of Arrakis, the overall setting is often indispensable to the tale. In fact, writers of fantasy and science fiction consider it so crucial, they call it “world building.”
Here, though, I want to talk about the settings of individual scenes.
The primary goal, of course, is to let your reader know where any specific event takes place. Bikers meet “at a pool hall.” A posh party takes place “at the art gallery.” The information is those phrases is clear. No confusion.
But it’s also detached. Neutral. You can do so much more. You can use setting to create atmosphere. To establish a mood. To give the feel of a place.
You achieve that through vivid sensory details. At the bikers’ pool hall, let’s hear the buzz of the fluorescent light above the pool table. At the art gallery, let’s smell a socialite’s gardenia perfume.
That’s the first “secret” technique.
The second is more subtle, but also more powerful. It’s about using setting to reveal character. You achieve that by showing a character’s attitude to the setting.
A grieving widow will see a field of wildflowers very differently than an eager young lover will. For the widow, the view causes heartache; for the lover, it’s sweet glory.
A farmer suffering drought will feel very differently about a rainstorm than an outdoor wedding planner will. For the farmer, rain is a blessed relief; for the wedding pro, it’s a disaster.
In fiction, it’s never just “acres of wildflowers” or “a rainswept field.” Nor is it enough to give sensory details as you might sense them. What’s important is how the character feels about the place.
No setting is neutral, because no character is neutral.
So have your story’s settings do this double duty. Make the reader feel they’re right there with the character by giving sights, sounds, smells. And – even more potent – let them glimpse that character’s soul.
P.S. For more tips to boost the power of your writing, check out my book Page-Turner. “The quintessential book on writing that breakout novel.” – Goodreads Review