Previous: 3 Ways to Use Setting and Atmosphere to Create Narrative Tension
Setting and Atmosphere
As discussed in previous posts, setting and atmosphere work together to pull readers into your story. Well-planned atmospheric detail also creates narrative tension and drama. That’s all well and good, but how do you do it? How do you create powerful settings that work for and enhance your stories?
As with most craft techniques, it’s a process. The process consists of three relatively easy steps:
1) Record concrete detail
2) Select essential detail
3) Connect and interpret
List the specific concrete words or details that best describe your story’s setting.
Realistic settings depend on specific, concrete detail-detail you can see, hear, smell, taste or touch. I know you’ve heard this before, but remember: use all five senses.
Most of us rely primarily on one particular sense-that is, we observe our world first and foremost through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth or body/ hands. Adults who possess all five senses generally rely on eyes or ears; that is, we use visual or auditory cues to experience and interpret their surroundings. If your stories usually emerge from an image, you’re probably visual, while those of us who start with voice or dialogue are more likely auditory. I mention this distinction only because, as writers, we tend to rely on our dominant sense.
Because I’m auditory-I hear the voices of my characters before I see them-I find it fairly easy to write believable dialogue. This would suit me perfectly-if I were a playwright. As a fiction writer, I struggle with imagining concrete detail and imagery.
Visual writers, on the other hand, write gorgeously sensuous scenes, using beautiful, evocative imagery. For those writers, working with voice or dialogue may be a challenge. Naturally, because it’s easy, expedient and rewarding to focus on the things we’re good at, most of us do. If we don’t rein ourselves in, we risk becoming the writing equivalent of gym rats who spend all their time on the bench press, and neglect the muscles in their shoulders and back. They end up with impressive 48″ chests, but they walk like monkeys.
Be aware of your natural tendencies. If you’re auditory, force yourself to pay attention to visual detail. Visual writers, consider the sounds in your fictional world. And don’t forget smell, taste and touch. Those oft forgotten sensory details add a layer of richness and texture.
Once you’ve listed tangible details, look closely at your list and determine which are important, which are extraneous. In other words, which details are essential to your story?
Think from the perspective of character. In my home office, a four-tiered eighteen foot shelf runs along the south-facing wall, the shelves packed with books, two deep, arranged by genre. That bookshelf says something, not only about my office, but about me. If I were to describe my office and fail to include the bookshelf, the office wouldn’t be mine.
Suppose an important scene takes place inside your protagonist’s house. Which details make this home hers and only hers? Say the house is a Cape Cod style home, located in a suburb of Boston. Now suppose you were a prospective buyer on a tour of fifteen Cape-style homes, all designed in 1985, set on acre lots, all with similar furnishings. How, at the end of the tour, would you differentiate? Which details would stick in your mind?
You’d probably remember a distinctive color. Architectural details-moldings, shingles, trim-might catch your eye. Or maybe you’d remember the way the houses sat on the lots. If a life-sized sculpture of a mastiff sat in one of the foyers, him you’d remember.
Back to your story: does your protagonist care about her house? Why or why not? Is the house contemporary or antique? Fastidiously neat or at risk of condemnation? Are the colors bright or subdued? The lawn manicured? Or overgrown? Does your protagonist have a dog? If so, does the dog have the run of the house? Or is he chained to a tree?
What does each detail tell you about the house? The owner or primary caretaker/s? The occupants? Remember: the best stories are character-based. Your settings should tell us something about the characters that we may not realize by simply observing behavior.
Connect & Interpret
Settings may seem static, or constant; in reality, they’re not. We connect with and interpret our surroundings in ways that differ both by person and mood.
Suppose you take your morning walk around a reservoir. How do you feel on a warm, sunny day, the water sparkling, the birds trilling? How might your perception differ if you were confined to a wheelchair? Maybe instead of the sparkling water you’d notice the gravel on the path. What if you’d gone there directly after the learning of the death of a close friend? What details might you notice that day? In New England, where the sun shines only about 25 percent of the time, rain makes a lot us grumpy. In sunny California, most people love the rain. Why is this? How might their observations of the rain differ?
When you create settings, try to filter details through the point of view of your characters.
Suppose, for example, your story is set in a duplex apartment rented by several guys in their early twenties. The kitchen consists of an antiquated sink and two-burner stove, the furnishings a torn leather sofa and egg crate shelves. A battered Persian rug covers the central wood floor. It’s a Sunday afternoon, your hero’s 21st birthday. Music blasts from the CD player. A roommate bought pizza, the apartment littered with boxes, empty beer cans, cups, plates, bottles of whiskey. Kids are everywhere, in various stages of dress. For kicks, someone hired a stripper and she’s doing her thing . . . when the doorbell rings.
It’s the protagonist’s ultra-conservative 80 year-old grandmother, paying a birthday call. What does she see? How might she interpret this setting or scene? What if Grandma were 60 and hip? What if the caller were a guest? A friend intentionally left off the guest list? What might each of these people observe? How might they interpret what they observed?
a) List details pertinent to the time period and location of your story or novel. Try to brainstorm as many details as possible. Be sure the details are specific and concrete. EG: A string of Halloween pumpkin lights strung above a filthy picture window.
b) From your list, select three essential details.
c) Using these three details, create a setting, using the POV of your protagonist.
d) Rewrite the setting, this time describing it from the POV of an opposing character.
a) In one paragraph describe a place that’s familiar to you.
b) Think of a character, or someone you know, who’d find this setting outlandish, off-putting or unfamiliar. Write a scene in this setting, but narrate from his or her POV.
a) It’s a gorgeous, sunny afternoon in June, the flowers in bloom, a wedding about to take place. Describe the interior of the tent from the POV of the bride or groom.
b) The sun gives way to threatening clouds; suddenly, a storm erupts, the wind howling, torrential rain pounding the ceiling of the tent. Rewrite the description of the scene inside the tent-without referring directly to the weather.
For a list of resources for writers and how-to books on craft, please visit my website.
- Flash Bites: Setting the Scene
- Storytelling to Create Impact Brands: Storytelling Maps- Storytelling Creating Tools
- Hey, There’s A Dead Guy in the Living Room: Five Reasons I Hate Your Protagonist
great blog post filled with good specifics to help the writer hone the art of detail writing. Setting is one of my favorites to build into story, and like you, I find dialogue easier.
But the piece de resistance, is as you mention: the essential detail.
great stuff. thanks for posting
Wonderful to see you here! I'm so glad you like this post.
As I mention, I've struggled with visual imagery, so setting didn't come naturally to me; it's something I've worked hard – and still work hard – to get right. I completely agree – it's all about the essential detail!
I hope all is well with you! Thanks so much for stopping by!
I love this article. I used to have a weakness for both dialogue and description but in recent years my dialogue has improved drastically. I think this is because I'm more of an auditory person rather than a visual. Great article with some points I've never seen before. Thanks Terri!
Thank you so much, Michelle! I really appreciate your kind words. And I'm excited that you found the piece helpful. Like you, I'm an auditory person. I have to work extra hard at writing description – but it makes dialogue so much fun! So glad you stopped by!
Great exercises! Thanks for this post.
Thank you so much, Jacquelyn! So glad you liked it!
Very good analysis and better exercises. The setting of a piece can often be under-represented and doing so can often result in a weaker piece for it. It's great to keep thing in focus when crafting a piece.
Thank you for the comment, PW. I'm so glad you found the post helpful. Did you try out the exercises? I'd love to see the results. :-)
Okay, I have to tell you, I love this. The steps you've given provide a full scene rather than a flat scene with nothing but dialogue or a bit of description. While you can kill a scene with too much detail, particularly if it's badly placed, in general, the addition of details paints a picture that brings a book to life. Well done!
Thank you so very much, Angela! I really appreciate your stopping by! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post!!
A post that makes you stop and think. Yes I may have known all this on some subliminal lavel, but by structuring it the way you have I'll come to my writing with a different persective. Thanks for that.
Thanks for this! I tend to focus more on the action and dialogue and forget all about the setting. This is a nice step by step to help me see it.