Writing Tip #6 – Setting

How do you create the perfect setting?

Setting is a largely underrated piece of writing. Knowing where the story takes place is incredibly important. A novel should tell a story, but it should also paint a picture. Unless you’re writing a picture book, it is your job to write things out in a descriptive manner so that your reader can picture each scene.

This is one of my biggest issues when I write. I’m great at coming up with dialogue, and character, but I’m horrible at being descriptive. There are two exercises that I have used over the years to increase my use of descriptive phrases, and I have outlined them below.

Dialogue First, Description Later

This was a technique my seventh grade English teacher taught me. First, I added in the dialogue, so that it was a script. I would read through the dialogue I had written once I was finished with a scene twice. After the second time, I would try to picture the scene in my mind, focusing on one piece of dialogue at a time. As my character said hello, did he open a wooden door that creaked from age. Did the other character stand awkwardly on the white porch and wave.

With the dialogue out of the way, it becomes easier to focus on the background thing. You begin to notice the apron your main character’s grandmother is wearing. It’s blue, with a lace trim on the outside. It’s faded because it has been passed down through generations. Maybe, it has the initials of a great, great, great grandmother, who made it herself.

Or, maybe the kitchen smells like freshly baked cookies. But not chocolate chip cookies. No, these are raspberry, white chocolate, cookies. A secret recipe; the key ingredient is brown sugar.

Description First, Dialogue Later

This is the opposite, but I find that it works just as well. When the chapter starts, where is the character? Are they on a plane. Do they observe the weird, patterned, blue and red carpet lining the aisles? Maybe, the seats are new, and smell like leather. Can they hear a baby crying four rows back?

Go back in and add dialogue after you’ve written the story. As your character walks down the aisle, maybe they overhear a phone conversation between a man and his wife. Maybe a kid is throwing a tantrum in the seat behind them. Do they read the Skymall magazine out loud to a friend?

Describe Everything

You’re in a room. Are you sitting on a rolling chair, or standing on a tiled floor? Are the walls a dreary tan, or a popping blue? Take a moment to describe where you are. Is there a cluttered desk, or an unmade bed? Describe it as though you were describing the room to someone who was blind.

You can take this a step further, and began describing your entire day. You change locations a lot, how do you handle that in your writing?

Finding the method that works best for you is important. A descriptive setting is essential to convincing the reader that your story is taking place. Shakespeare wrote his plays not to be read but to be performed. I loved Hamlet, but I loved it because my English class performed it. I do not think that Shakespeare should be read, because there is so much left to the reader to imagine. It wasn’t written to be read.

If you are writing a play, description isn’t as necessary. When writing a novel, the setting is everything. A descriptive setting draws a reader in, and makes them feel as though they are a part of the novel. Description can be hard, but these three exercises make it easier.

What works for you? Tell me in the comments!

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