How Writers Can Craft an Effective Setting

A time-lapse photo of people milling about an interior with stairs and an escalator.
Photo via Visual Hunt

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is adapted from A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting by Mary Buckham (@MaryBuckham), just released this month from Writer’s Digest Books.

How do you initially show the setting in the scene? The reader does need a quick “anchoring,” probably in the first few paragraphs of a new scene or new chapter, or a change in location. Where are we? What time of day is it? Is it quiet or noisy? What is the quality of light?

The reader will be mentally asking these questions, and the longer you keep the information from them, the less they will focus on what you want them to focus on. The reader will become more removed from the story and the characters, and instead be trying to figure out the where, when, who, or why.

Once you’ve established or anchored the reader into the where of your story, using a strong setting description, you do not need to continue to embellish and rehash a setting. Let the characters interact with the setting, move through it, pick things up and brush past them, once the reader knows the character is in a place already described.

How Setting Affects Pacing

If the character is returning to a place that hasn’t been described in depth previously, the reader will not be as open to a slower pacing on the revisit so you can describe setting. The reader has most likely created her own visuals, because a reader needs to see the characters in some context. This is a small but important point, and an error many new writers make.

Beginning writers often:

  • wait until it’s too late to describe and orient the reader as to place;
  • or totally forget that the reader has no idea where the character is in the story, because the location has suddenly moved from a known to a new, unknown location.

If I write, Joe left his home and went to the city, the setting is so vague that it leaves you clueless and frustrated. But if I write, Joe left his beachside cottage and drove into Lake Forest City, a northern suburb of Seattle, the addition of a few specifics gives you enough to inhabit the character’s world while keeping the main focus on what’s happening in the story.

How Setting Affects Characterization and Conflict

It’s human nature to notice what’s changed—you might not notice an object on your mantel every day, but you do notice when it’s missing. If an object, like a beloved photograph, was foreshadowed earlier in the story, you can now show that it’s missing. Instead of starting such a scene with the character re-entering the living room, you show the reader that the first thing the character notices when she enters the living room is the gap on the mantel: the space where her mother’s photo was. Bam! We’re in that living room without spending a lot of time re-describing what the reader has already been shown.

Look at how Laura Anne Gilman (Hard Magic) orients the reader as to where the character is physically in space and gives a hint of the protagonist’s backstory, characterization of two different characters, and a hint of potential conflict between characters through her description of a room. All in only one paragraph!

The only way to describe J’s place was “warm.” Rosewood furniture against cream-colored walls, and touches of dark blue and flannel gray everywhere, broken by the occasional bit of foam green from his Chinese pottery collection. You’d have thought I’d have grown up to be Uber Society Girl, not pixie-Goth, in these surroundings. Even my bedroom—now turned back into its original use as a library—had the same feel of calm wealth to it, no matter how many pop-culture posters I put up or how dark I painted the walls.

Now let’s dissect that paragraph to see the power of the individual parts.

The only way to describe J’s place was “warm.”

[Subjective emotion from the POV character that gives a hint of her relationship with the home’s owner. Plus we are able to get a quick sense of the feel of a place; we know when we’ve been in a warm or cool room even if we don’t have too many details yet.]

Rosewood furniture against cream-colored walls, and touches of dark blue and flannel gray everywhere,

[Notice the pieces of furniture are not described because it’s not important to know there’s a couch or two chairs in the room. It’s more important to get a sense of the owner of the room by his choice of subtle and understated colors and the wood—rosewood is a world away from oak or distressed pine. We’re getting a glimpse into the world of the secondary character here.]

broken by the occasional bit of foam green from his Chinese pottery collection.

[Here, because collecting Chinese pottery is not the same as collecting baseball cards or stamps, the reader has another image of the wealth and refinement of the home’s owner.]

You’d have thought I’d have grown up to be Uber Society Girl, not pixie-Goth, in these surroundings.

[Now the reader is focused on the differences between the POV character’s sense of self and the home’s owner by use of contrast. This is (or was) her home, yet it’s clear she does not see herself as belonging.]

Even my bedroom—now turned back into its original use as a library—had the same feel of calm wealth to it, no matter how many pop-culture posters I put up or how dark I painted the walls.

[This hints at conflict and foreshadowing.]

Through her specific word choices and the objects she’s chosen to comment on, Gilman has deepened her world building between these two characters in the series. We are now seeing where the POV character came from and where her mentor still lives. The author’s word choices, pointing out the contrast between “calm wealth,” “pop-culture posters,” and dark-painted walls, reveals to the reader the sense of not belonging in the world in which she was raised, which is a key theme in this story.

Let’s look at another example approaching setting from a rough draft version to the final version.

FIRST DRAFT: The wardens led me to a room and left me there.

Pretty bland description. The reader is not deep into this character’s POV because the character is not experiencing the room.

SECOND DRAFT: I’m conducted to a room and left alone. It’s the richest place I’ve ever been in.

Better because now we’re given a little more insight into what the POV character is feeling based on the response to the room. But we still have no idea why the character feels this way. Nor can we see the room. Plus, instead of being shown the place, we’re only told about it.

Let’s see how Suzanne Collins used the setting to enhance the opening of her story in The Hunger Games:

Once inside, I’m conducted to a room and left alone. It’s the richest place I’ve ever been in, with thick deep carpets and a velvet couch and chairs. I know velvet because my mother has a dress with a collar made of the stuff. When I sit on the couch, I can’t help running my fingers over the fabric repeatedly. It helps to calm me as I try to prepare for the next hour. The time allotted for the tributes to say goodbye to their loved ones.

Here we have more setting details that allow the author to show some characterization of the POV character and reveal emotions based on her interaction with this room, all by adding just a few more details of setting.

How to Use Subtext in Setting

Subtext is the underlying message the reader receives from a passage. Dialogue or action may say one thing: all appears to be fine, but the reader understands from other cues—such as the setting—that the subtext is saying something else.

Have you ever attended an event with a friend or family member and later, in discussing the event, discovered that, based on the friend’s description, you each seemed to have been at a totally different event? Mystery-writer Agatha Christie used this ability to great effect. She allowed her characters to focus in on what matters to them in one of her Hercule Poirot stories, Cards on the Table. The Belgian detective asks half-a-dozen participants of a party to describe the room where the murder took place. All of the characters, because they come from different backgrounds with different interests, describe highlights of the room from totally different perspectives. One notes the very valuable and esoteric collectibles scattered around on the tabletops. Another, a soldier who spent many years in the Middle East, could tell the detective the tribal names of the woven rugs on the floor; another character saw the room in terms of colors; and another could describe the type of period furniture.

Now if the reader had not already “seen” the entire room—in all its detail—through the detective’s eyes, but saw only the small snippets from the individual secondary characters, the reader might see only a room with knick-knacks or just a room with carpets, but no furniture. By letting the audience see the whole room through Poirot’s POV first, and then revisiting the room through each character’s POV, the reader is led to solve the mystery of who killed the victim because only one character “saw” the weapon that was at hand.

What to Avoid with Descriptions of Setting

Some writers will write really long descriptions, such as this one of a tree:

A Utah pine, I suppose. I know it wasn’t an alligator. Remembering, I’d say the trunk was about a foot through, but the reason for the tree’s importance was a lightning strike that burnt out the core. So the tree was alive on the outside and dead in the middle. The lowest limbs got thick as trunks and the branches went out and up. The shape was perfect for a tree house. After the dead middle trunk was cut off level with the live limbs, that is. Scrounged pieces of 2×4 and small off cuts of plywood formed the tree house, which we lined with gunny sacking to make it feel like a real house. Slept in that tree more than once. Now a road goes over where the tree was. I reckon it provided winter fuel for someone’s fireplace. The old jailhouse, though, still stands not a hundred yards away.

This description features a lot of details—too many, as you get easily shifted from focusing on a specific tree to several other issues. There are almost too many issues in one paragraph. A character’s backstory, how the character feels about the absence of the tree, and a secondary building that’s now on the site all can be consistent and compatible images, but there are so many other details about the way the tree looked and what happened to it and in it that the sudden shift to a road and jailhouse seems jarring. The reader’s focus is shifted by the use of one or two sentences describing the tree when used as a tree house, sliding into the fact the tree is now gone and instead there’s a jail next door. In other words, too much information that is not necessary.

Overdescribing can cause story issues that will impact your pacing and frustrate your reader. The most important worldbuilding aspect in the above example is the description of the tree as alive on the outside but dead on the inside. This gives enormous insight to the POV character’s world and his relationship to it—we assume the character, too, is alive on the outside, but dead on the inside. No need for details about how the tree fort was built, or the shift to a jailhouse.

Another common setting detail speed bump:

EXAMPLE: a blue tract home

Here we have too little detail. The author assumes the reader knows what is meant by a tract home, but since tract housing has been around since the seventeenth century, there can be a huge difference between coal-miner homes in an eighteenth-century Cornish town and wooden detached homes created in an American suburb shortly after World War II. Adding a few more specific words will pull your reader deeper into your specific story setting.

REWRITE: A blue tract home in a 1950s suburb.

A copycat row of brick tract bungalows built for the coal miners, some faded red, others painted blue.

Little wooden box tract houses built for single millworkers or families who couldn’t afford more.

Here’s an example of setting that does not need too many details or words because the setting is not being used to show information about the POV character or to orient the reader into a change in the story’s location. The setting is used to show the reader only one thing.

Woods surrounded the clearing in which Merlotte’s stood, and the edges of the parking lot were mostly gravel. Sam kept it well lit, and the surrealistic glare of the high parking lot lights made everything look strange.

—Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark

In the above example, the author wanted to keep the reader focused on the feel and the emotion of the setting, nothing more. Look what would have happened if Harris had chosen to overwrite this setting.

OVERWRITTEN EXAMPLE: Piney woods with a few wild magnolia trees surrounded the ninety-foot by ninety-foot clearing in which Merlotte’s stood, and the edges of the square parking lot were mostly gravel of the light-gray variety, clashing with the red of the Georgia soil. Sam kept the lot well lit with at least six vapor-arc lights high overhead and a spotlight near the front door of the bar. The surrealistic glare of the high parking-lot lights made everything look elongated and warped, like looking into one of those mirrors at carnivals.

Writer's Guide to SettingSee? All this detail shifts the focus away from the mood of the setting and can slow the story pacing.

Be aware of your intention with setting details. If the reader needs to know the type of tree, then show it. But if they don’t need that information, if it doesn’t improve your story, then leave it out.

For more from Mary Buckham, visit or check out A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting.

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