How To Write Better Settings

Know Your Settings Inside and Out:

The reader will feel lost or the story will seem somehow incomplete if you guess at or skip over important details. I suggest modeling your settings after a place you know about.

If your book is in a different time-period, read as much historical non-fiction as you can. Fiction too, to get the full scope, but nonfiction because you know it’s accurate. Often you can cross specific details (time and place and events) in nonfiction books. Those specific details could prove invaluable to you when you write your own novels.

If you’re creating a world, envision yourself walking in it.

Help your readers associate with Place by world-building. Define certain aspects that they can relate to even if they’ve never been to the place you’re writing about.

What should your reader expect from your setting?


Keep a schedule of your character’s wandering through the prose so you know what happens and when. This is invaluable information to have for keeping a storyline straight and pointed in the right direction and making sense within the natural world. Here are some things to consider:

-Year, Season, Month, Week, Day, Specific Time.

-Time or Section of in Character’s Life or Development, Time-based on Another Character Affecting the First Character or Others.

Add Lots of Details:

Immerse yourself in the world, and let your reader experience it too. Your reader sees what you see (and sometimes more than you write). For a fuller, richer story that they can feel, add the little details that they may be missing.

Chipped cups, scratched watches, little scars, peeling paint. Add the sounds of your setting, the constant thrash of waves against the beach and the incessant seagulls cawing at each other. Add touch. The soft doughy sand, gritty or fine. The sensation of wet against skin. Maybe it smells briny, or like rotting seaweed. Can your reader taste the salt on their tongue?

Sometimes as a writer, you’ll get impressions about your setting or characters as you continue editing and drafting. Follow those impressions. Try to ingrain yourself so deeply in your scene that you recognize these small fleeting things that your brain tells you like the holes in the orphan’s shoes, the ratty cap on his untamed hair. One thing you may not notice at first is that the orphan holds tight to an old timepiece with a black and white picture inside.

Often, your brain works so fast that you can’t capture or process as fast as it works. We want to glimpse what it already knows. Working tirelessly on a single piece of writing will let your mind glide over the familiar pieces and focus on the smaller things that you missed before.

Everything you can add to your setting to make the world real is important on some level. Even stuff that doesn’t pertain to your story can be alluded to, added in the next book.

Giving little details shows that the writer is paying attention and cares. Care about your settings as much as you care about your characters. If you take the time to create the world, let your readers experience it with you as you imagined it. If you’re writing about the world we live in, let your readers stroll down the street with you as you point out places you’ve been and experiences you’ve had. Making it as real as possible is how you build a plausible story.

One side note here: Our readers need to understand our work, and what I mean by that is that you’re inviting a reader into a fresh new world.

Don’t drown them in detail but let them get close and personal with your setting. One thing I’ve noticed with some books (fantasy or sci-fi in particular) is that they throw a ton of new information at the reader and expect them to follow along easily. Too many new, made-up words describing new devices or places or creatures and it’s not always easy to keep up with what names we can’t pronounce go to which new made-up thing we’ve just been introduced to.

Sometimes it’s OK to step back from the plot and explain something to your reader. Trust them, but don’t overwhelm them.

If you need examples of creating a setting, I highly recommend reading “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Dumas’s lines melt away and you’re suddenly standing exactly where he wants you even if you’ve never been there. I’d recommend this book to anyone anyway because it’s my favorite, but I’ve never seen setting as clearly or as colorfully as in this book. It’s breathtaking.

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