Writing Good Setting

Recall that there are three components to any novel: character, plot and setting. Let’s take a look at the latter.

Most ideas for new novels begin with one of the above. Either you have an idea for a character but no full story yet, or a story but not the characters, or perhaps you have the setting. A hotel, a workplace, a distant land, a country estate, a forest. I personally have been motivated several times to start writing based on an idea for a setting that captivated my imagination. To a large extent, setting will affect both your characters and the plot. Of course, all three aspects should be completely intertwined, such that the characters will affect the eventual settings, the setting will affect the course of the plot, and the plot will affect the characters themselves.

Now, how do you portray setting in your novel? Most writers think they need to write lots of description in their scenes, conveying every little detail. That is not necessary, and makes for bad fiction. To illustrate my point, look at each of the following words and then note what comes to your mind.

  • House
  • Mansion
  • Garden
  • Office
  • High street
  • Greengrocers
  • Car

Now, most likely what happened was that your mind conjured up images of each of these things, based on your own memories and experiences. When you read the word “mansion,” your mind instantly brought up an image of a mansion, perhaps something you saw outside, on TV, or perhaps your own house…

My point is that readers are not blank slates that must be fed everything about your story. They bring their own memories, thoughts and ideas with them and will superimpose them on your story, including your characters, your plot and your setting. You don’t need to go into detail to describe, for example, the colour of the car, unless it’s important to your story. That’s the key point to take away: don’t put something in your novel unless it moves the story forward. This ties in with one of my earlier posts about using adjectives and adverbs. Just write “car” instead of “blue, shiny car.” The moment the reader sees the word “car”, they will tend to think about their own car regardless of whether you say it’s blue or it’s shiny. It doesn’t add value to your story. Don’t go into lots of detail describing scenery, unless, for example, your character is an artist and his observation of the scenery is part of the story. I think you get the idea.

So, when adding description, stick to the basics. Keep it simple, but not simplistic. Your scenes should be 90% action, dialogue and introspection, just 10% description. Don’t leave it out altogether, but be sensible about where you add it.

Remember that the best setting begins in the mind of the author, but ends in the mind of the reader.

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Bad use of alliteration

When reviewing your writing, take the time to read the text aloud to get a feel for the rhythm and fluency of the writing. Prose has a sound of its own, just like poetry or even music. Do the sentences flow smoothly into each other, or are they choppy and awkward? One of the worst culprits is alliteration in the wrong place. For example:

The man held up the can.

Try reading that aloud, noticing that the alliteration between “man” and “can” makes the sentence awkward to read. If this sentence was part of a paragraph that described a tense or a fast-moving scene, the tempo would be completely destroyed. Try rephrasing, perhaps by using the character’s name or even completely re-writing the sentence or paragraph.

Colin held up the can.

He held up the can.

Here’s another example, where the first part of the words is in common:

Kerry spotted the spider on her lap.

Here, “spotted” and “spider” cause an alliteration, spoiling the sentence. Much better to rephrase:

Kerry noticed the spider on her lap.

Kerry realised the spider was on her lap.