Updated: Aug 15
The most beloved character I’ve ever written is a place, not a person. Alaska: 2022. Ten miles outside of Skagway in a rural town of less than a hundred people called Dyea. It was early June, and the trees and flowers were all in bloom, sending the stench of sweet rot across the air. The pollen was heavy – seeds floated on a breeze. The river, wide and rushing. The snowline on the mountains was suspiciously thin that summer, probably due to global warming. It would have a direct impact on the glacier nestled between the mountains, which was one of the critical plot points in the novella I was writing.
With less attention to the setting, the story could’ve worked. But with extra focus on sensory detail and description, the setting instead became alive, working with the other characters to learn, grow, fall, fail, and recover. This made the lessons in the story feel deeper, more nuanced, and more earned.
If you’re interested in making sure your setting works seamlessly with your plot and other characters, try integrating the below 3 tips for a nuanced, fully realized setting:
1. Your setting should be fully fleshed out, just as any other character would be.
The setting in your novel/novella/short story can be approached similarly to a human character. Humans have different personalities that help the reader tell them apart. The setting should, too. It has its own quirks, temper tantrums, and preferences. The sky in Dyea liked to cloud over in the morning, tense and quick moving, before settling into sun later in the afternoon. The twilight lingered until midnight, illuminating the tall trees and forest canopy. When it rained, it got cold and the river swelled, and it smelled like the dandelions that were blooming all around.
Your setting should have details like these. Does it rain often? What does it feel like when it rains? How does it smell? How long is the sun up? Down? How does that make things feel?
2. Setting should have specific sense details that are unique to it.
Each person has something unique about them (or they should when you are writing them). Your setting should be similar – it needs a fingerprint of some sort, like a tic. It should be something that speaks to you as a writer and helps the reader reflect on something within the story.
The farm in Dyea was rimmed by a large electric fence to keep bears out. It’s a strange thing to focus on for such a unique place, but it made a huge impact on the feeling of safety within the farm. Without it, when woken up at three in the morning by the farm dogs’ terrible howling, I would’ve feared for my life that a grizzly had entered the space. With it, I could feel free to go on walks, play fetch with the dogs, meander around at midnight watching the twilight. Without it, my experience of the location (and thus the reader’s experience when translated into the novella) would’ve been altered.
The farm in Dyea was also graced by an intermittent tsunami test alarm – loud and blaring enough to send the horse scampering across the field in fear. The alarm created tension across the farm and could be used to scare a reader or up a tense scene. There was also a baby (teenaged?) squirrel that lived on the porch outside my cabin, who spent the afternoons scraping at the window screens, begging for food, or climbing up the wood beams to steal birdseed from the feeders, pushing away the two Stellar Jays who normally dined there. The baby squirrel could be used to endear the reader to the setting, as it did with me, to help them invest in not just the human characters but the place and earth around them.
3. Your setting should play a role in at least one of the following:
a. locating the reader,
b. amping up the story tension, or
c. revealing character detail.
. . . the setting instead became alive, working with the other characters to learn, grow, fall, fail, and recover.
The most obvious use for setting is to locate the reader and help them better understand the world they’re operating in. This is critical in any story, but especially in those that take place in alternate worlds or universes. The reader can’t enjoy the plot, theme, or other characters if they can’t visualize where everything is taking place. Carefully locating the reader makes them more likely to pick up on other important details such as theme and character growth.
The tension in a piece can be ramped up by a good setting. This is why so many horror stories take place at night, in the dark, or during a storm. Rural and isolated areas are also great places to set thrillers, such as Misery by Stephen King. The isolation of the place brings a greater sense of doom to the reader, knowing help is far away, if not there at all. Sometimes, the setting can be used in small ways to ramp up tension – a tree that looks singed and burned and scarily lifelike; a house that looks like a face frowning; an isolated lake with choppy murky water. These small details intensify the characters’ sense of dread and their overall experience of where they are, pushing the story forward and the reader with it.
My favorite use of setting is to reveal character detail and psychology. In my Alaska novella, the main character is recovering from a traumatic event that has made her mistrustful of everyone and everything. To reflect this, I focused on the cloudy, murky days in Dyea, the rain, the way the tall trees sometimes block the sunlight, making everything feel shadowed, and the looming mountains that see everything. The main character’s inner mistrust is then reflected by how she (and the reader) sees and experiences the setting.
Is your main character feeling lifeless and lost? Maybe they live in a desert where not much grows, and they worry about how the lack of rain is going to impact the few bits of nature around them. Is your main character overwhelmed, stressed out, and frantic? Maybe they live in a city where they are always missing the train, everyone is always in their way on the sidewalks, and they never seem to get anywhere without a delay. A reflective setting compounds the issues the narrator is facing and helps bind the reader to their inner world.
Setting is an underused and often overlooked piece of creative writing that has many positives if used correctly. If you’re able to incorporate all the suggestions outlined above, you’ll have a setting that screams, leaps, and tears its way off the page, engaging readers for years to come.
Chelsea Catherine has lived and worked all over the country. They won the Mary C Mohr award for nonfiction through the Southern Indiana Review and their second book, Summer of the Cicadas, won the Quill Prose Award from Red Hen Press. In 2022, they spent a month in Alaska at the Alderworks Artists Retreat, and their story, The Not-Deer, was recently published in an anthology out of London, UK. Their work can be found in Hobart, Passengers Journal, The Florida Review, and others. Their website is https://chelseacatherinewriter.com/
Need an editor to help get your novel ready to submit to literary agents or publishers? Novelmasterclass charges .03/word. We'd love to talk to you about your book.
Email us at Support@novelmasterclass.com