At the mention of setting, the novice writer may think that it’s just a minor detail. Just mention where the story is taking place and the time and be done with it. Wrong. The setting can make or break a story. If you don’t keep the reader grounded as to where the characters are, the time of day and their surroundings, you’ll lose that reader before they’re finished with the first chapter. It’s not enough to have compelling characters acting out some fascinating story. The reader needs to know where, when and how in order to truly get involved in the storyline.
The first thing in creating a story is to establish where it’s taking place. By that, I don’t mean a statement that the characters are in Miami, Florida. That’s not going to hold a reader. You have to know Miami. Know its streets, the way it smells, sounds and how hot, cold or humid it is. Describe the buildings and the streets. Show how the foliage is there. Place the reader there and make them feel as if they know the place intimately. Show them how it feels to breathe in the heat and humidity. How it feels to dress for work in the morning and have your silk blouse immediately wilt and stick to your body from the humidity. How they deal with the traffic down there. Is it set in a seedy neighborhood or an affluent subdivision? Description of the location lends itself to the impression of the story. As soon as you mention a ghetto-like area, the reader automatically assumes something bad is going to happen. The more details you include, the more the reader is going to identify with your setting.
A timeline is important so that the reader understands when this is all taking place. You can’t just start the action and expect the reader to know what time of day or year it is unless you let them know. If it’s historical then you’ll need to show details of that period of time, which means research. It’s just as important to show current time. Don’t assume the reader knows, show them. Show the time of day also, nighttime suggests caution while daylight implies freedom. By using time as well as location, you can create a sense of where the story is going.
Remember not to allow your description of the setting to read like a brochure. You’re going to lose your reader when they’re forced to read where and when the story is taking place in a narrative paragraph. A skillful writer shows the setting by including it in the natural pace of the storytelling. He’ll describe location through his character’s thoughts. Include it in a dialogue between characters. Show it during the action. Details about the setting should never be obvious. It should be interwoven into the story in such an inconspicuous way that the reader knows details of where, when and how without ever being conscious of being told so.
This may seem minor but when creating an effective setting, you must know what you are talking about. As soon as the reader detects something incorrectly or out of place, they’re going to put that book down. For example, showing Miami with a snowstorm in the winter will definitely jolt a reader to reality and force him to reconsider reading any more by a writer who obviously doesn’t know where Miami is located and the fact that snow just doesn’t happen there. Write about something you are familiar with or else be prepared to do research to get accurate facts into the story.
The setting is just as important as the creation of characters and dialogue. A good writer will devote just as much care and attention to setting as to the rest of the story.
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