Setting the Scene: Using Setting in Your Story

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Setting is one of the things that draws your reader into your story and allows her to envision your world. In many ways it’s like a necessary character. Try and do without it, and your story will fall flat. But properly setting the scenes in your story is difficult in this day and age, when pages and pages of introspection are no longer acceptable.

So how do we effectively build setting without boring the reader? By sprinkling setting throughout the story in manageable little chunks. It still gets the imagery across but you only burden the reader with what is absolutely necessary to know at this point in time.

Sprinkling the setting throughout the story is something I struggle with. When my character walks into a room, I’m envisioning it. My gut reaction is to write that down in a sort of laundry list of information that will set the scene for my reader. Well, that’s fine if it’s just a few sentences. But any more and I run the risk of boring my reader. So when setting the scene I make a conscious effort to sprinkle bits of setting here and there.

Setting is also important when changing scenes or starting new chapters. The reader needs to be brought back into the story. She needs to know whether we are still where we left off at the last scene or chapter, or whether it’s an entirely new location. This is easy to forget when I’m writing the story, since I know exactly where I left off and whether this scene is supposed to be at that same place or not. So when editing I make a note to check all scene beginnings to make sure setting is clear.

Setting can also be used as a symbol for something else in your scene. If the heroine is about to meet with someone whose intentions are unclear, maybe the setting will be spooky in order to signal her unease. If one of the characters is quirky and unusual, perhaps the setting for the scene in which she is featured can also be odd and unusual. When properly done, this subconsciously triggers that same emotion within your reader, drawing her further into the storyline.

For you writers, do you have any tricks for incorporating setting into your story? If so, please do share! Smile

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12 thoughts on “Setting the Scene: Using Setting in Your Story

    kayspringsteen said:
    February 2, 2011 at 8:15 am

    First, I write my scenes in layers, so I tend to write the details of the setting in after the action or dialogue, etc. That makes it a lot easier to sprinkle those details as opposed to dumping them.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 2, 2011 at 8:19 am

      That’s a good point, Kay. Setting can always be added in. I tend to want to get everything I see down on the first draft, but it’s important to know that I’ll need to go in later and fine tune it.

    Ciara Knight said:
    February 2, 2011 at 8:21 am

    That is a great idea @kaysprngsteen. I tend to dump at the beginning, then edit it into the chapter.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 2, 2011 at 8:27 am

      Yup, Ciara. That’s my move too!

        kayspringsteen said:
        February 2, 2011 at 8:51 am

        If you have a picture – either a figurative one or a real one – of the setting, you don’t need to waste time and effort writing down at the beginning. I have a story board system (on the computer) that includes pictures of the most important setting OR if one is not available, then notes about same. When I sprinkle in those details, they come from the picture or notes.

        Rosalie Lario responded:
        February 2, 2011 at 9:20 am

        You know Kay, I use a storyboard but I haven’t done that yet. It’s a really good idea though because I’ve been known to spend hours looking at the pictures on my storyboard and thinking of descrbibing the setting before writing the scene. Not the most productive use of my time, since most of it gets cut anyway.

    Julia Rachel Barrett said:
    February 2, 2011 at 11:24 am

    I use both little chunks of setting and revealing setting in dialogue and action. A setting dump can be as bad as an info dump. For example, I don’t mind if, say, our heroine’s eyes light on a vase or a flower – that provides a template for my imagination. I do mind if I get a detailed description of every single piece of furniture or decoration in a room. I much prefer a general visual of the setting to detailed specifics.
    Unless – there is one evocative and important thing – then give me the specifics in pretty, descriptive prose.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 2, 2011 at 1:26 pm

      Julia, I read a debut urban fantasy last month. The worldbuilding was great but the author went just a little overboard in setting the scene. Enough so that several people mentioned it in their Amazon reviews. Readers can tell when they see setting dump, and they usually don’t like it.

        Julia Rachel Barrett said:
        February 2, 2011 at 3:16 pm

        Rosalie – I recently read a mystery story and the writer described some carpet in great detail, which made me think that carpet would become important at some point, however, it was nothing more than a description, setting the stage – a meaningless waste of words. If the carpet had great meaning for the villain, maybe the description would have been necessary, but no, it was window dressing.

        Rosalie Lario responded:
        February 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm

        That’s the thing about it. As readers we expect that if time is spent on a detail, then it’s because it will be important at some point in time.

    Marianne Stephens said:
    February 2, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Settings are so important, but you have to be careful not to dwell too much on them and bore the reader. It’s a fine line between tell enough and tell too much. A great setting will put your reader “there”…where the action is. Tell enough to entice and not enough to sound like a travel guide.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm

      So true, Marianne. I never noticed before I started seriously writing, but my favorite stories sprinkle in setting one sentence at a time. It’s so effective and eliminates the threat of ‘boring’ paragraphs.

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