Set the scene to ground your reader. This prevents the characters from becoming floating heads. It creates authenticity. Picking the setting requires careful consideration. Some of the basic setting types are common geographical places such as homes, nature, work buildings, parks and bars or restaurants of some sort.
Before sitting down to write
Pick setting carefully: The purpose of setting is to support and contain the action.
If the action isn’t anchored to a specific location, pick one that is interesting to be at. A sex scene is more interesting in a ticket box five minutes before the doors open, than in a bedroom with the door locked.
You can use setting to reflect the inner landscape of your protagonist. The classic example, to have it rain when your protagonist is feeling down.
Alternatively, you can use setting like a character either helping or opposing your protagonist. The fleeing deer alerts your protagonist to the direction of the hunters.
Sometimes, the setting has historical significance. In the film The Awakening, Florence is asked to investigate a haunted building used as a boarding school. Spoiler alert: it turns out to be the childhood home in which her father tried to kill her.
Use setting for local colour: a very particular place but without plot significance. For example, the odd people Stars Hollow doesn’t always play a crucial role in the plot of the Gilmore Girls episode, but it does displays how quirky the town is. It shows you how this place is different from other small towns.
Setting affects every character differently.
Locations don’t simply exist, they are experienced. A person experiences it because it triggers memories, thoughts and emotions. Because of that, a local responds differently than a tourist.
Familiar vs unfamiliar places
Unfamiliar places make us uncomfortable, on edge. The same goes for your readers in strange fictional places that do not resemble anything in the world they do know. If using highly uncommon or strange places, be aware of your duty as tour guide. Point out the important details, give the necessary information to help the reader understand this new place.
Familiar places require specific attention because the reader is so intimately familiar with what he should find there. Rooms in the home are essential for living and gathering. These spaces are especially telling of the characters that own or inhabit them.
How to select which details to give
Seeing is believing. The clearer the reader can envision the place, the more at home he will feel so give a detailed description. The details make it vivid and believable. Use telling details to describe what can be seen. To help filter out these important details, think back to the days of making a diorama in an old shoebox for elementary school. You don’t have the space to fit every detail present in the real room so you pick those that best represent the location you have chosen to recreate.
Telling detail: describes both specific element(s) of some things and imply/invoke some larger context usually either the scene or the character(s).
The golden rule: Telling details may include any word and take almost any form as long as it creates a vivid immersive specific image of what is unique, interesting and relevant about the thing it describes, whether it’s a character, object or action.
Give a sense of time. The perception of setting is greatly influenced by time. This concerns the era, to give a general sense of technology, fashion and such. The time of year also makes a major difference, as winters are deprived and cold whereas summer blossoms. The season is also capable of setting the backdrop mood of a scene. The time of day also needs to be made clear as early on as possible at the start of a scene.
Example: The grass hid beneath a blanket of snow.
Be concrete and specific in your description.
Example: Tony got into the car. Tony slid into the mouse-grey Mazda 323.
Settings should be describes to the reader in sensory details, involving more than one sense. You can use weather for effect in many ways. Take notice of what the five senses would register if you were truly there. Think of the weather, sky, sun/moon, ground, rubbish, gardens, wild plants/trees, environmental sounds, pets/wild animals, smells, wind, temperature, people present and what they’re doing, decoration, furniture.
Example: The hale ticks against the window. The raindrops tickle as they roll down his spine.
Whenever possible, let characters use props to bring it to life.
Example: Emily doesn’t fix her make-up, she brings out her baby blue eyes with dark brown mascara and bronze eyeshadow.
Give distinguishing details to tell similar places from each other.
Example: the pub that uses suspends mug holders from the ceiling, to keep the tables clear for card games.
Give plot relevant details.
Is the detail part of a cause-and-effect trajectory that relates to the plot? Example: The drink tasted unusually sweet. Then my throat closed up and I struggled to breathe.
Does it give insight into the character? Example: John ate the whole birthday cake himself in front of them. Put them in their place.
Is it a metaphor that illustrates a point? Example: Jane prefers sweet things as much as she prefers to avoid conflict.
Do not list common props in a room. Every kitchen has a stove and a fridge, don’t mention these unless the protagonist uses the prop or there is something (telling) unusual about it. Reading that the fridge is next to the stove, won’t excite your reader. Reading about a Gothic style black kitchen with a bright pink fridge, does interest the reader.
Don’t give elaborate descriptions of the exact lay-out of the room unless this is important to know to understand the action. Nobody cares whether its five or eight paces from the door to the bed unless your protagonist is blind and her partner is trying to trick her.
How many details do you need?
Working memory can only hold about seven items at the same time. Use as few as possible while effectively and vividly sketching the scenes, actions and characters. Using too few details risks showing a vague, unreal and boring scene. Using too many makes the read a slugging tedious piece and kills the pace and energy. Overwrite for your first draft and cut excess details out during revision. Aim for two or three specific details per thing.
Tip: Keep a list or location sheet to stay consistent. Don’t let a wooden table suddenly be stone three chapters later.
Where to insert them into the narrative
Wherever you can afford to slow the pace a bit. Weave them into your narration, keeping in mind that exposition slows down the pace. The most common place for most description details of setting is at the start of the scene as you ground your reader into the story location. Sprinkle descriptions into the narrative, do not list them!
Highlighting or hiding the detail/prop
Think of your mental picture. Adjust the mental camera to focus the lens on the thing or person you want people to pay attention to, let the rest go out of focus.
Now as you write your scene, create contrast between the focus centre and the blurred surroundings to create the spotlight. Example: A goth stands out in the middle of an elementary school playground on a sunny summer’s day. The more time you spend describing a particular object, the more meaning and important the reader will attach to it. Character specific props are only important to the character himself, (e.g., Harry Potter’s glasses) these not need to change the course of the plot but they do need to be described in enough detail for the reader to know how valuable these socks are to the character.
Hide foreshadowing clues among the blurred background. Hide significant objects in plain sight by light mentions only to prevent the reader from guessing its importance too early in the story.
Ways to weave setting into the narrative
Use specific nouns and specific active verbs. Only use adverbs if the specific noun is still not specific enough for your purpose. Don’t forget that dialogue can be a form of character detail.
Setting through action: The pebble skidded across the lake.
Setting through character response; He stepped into the house and wrinkled his nose in disgust.
Setting through character opinion: The hallway was lined with those sickeningly sweet family pictures.
Setting through dialogue: “This room is so messy, it’s a wonder you can find anything at all.”
Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.
Hall, R. (2014) Writing Vivid Settings.