7 Tips on Writing Settings

This post is brought to you by Kat, who when I asked what I should write for my turn on the blog this week, answered with: SETTING.

In preparing for this post, I re-read our Roundtable #7, where Foody, Melody, Akshaya and I talk settings, so definitely check that out if you haven’t already.

Between plot, character, and setting, I feel like setting always gets the short end of the stick. For something that’s literally in every. single. scene., I don’t feel like writers talk about setting that much. It’s just not as complex as characterizations, nor as exciting as plot. And yet, setting done right can be one of the most powerful weapons in the writer’s arsenal.

So here we go, a few tips to keep in mind when writing settings:

Tip #1: Establish a few key settings at the start of the book, then set scenes in those same locations. For one, you won’t have to describe the setting again if you do it well the first time. But also, investing in a few, distinct settings gives them that extra time to develop, and allows the setting to feel like a character in itself. Think of your book as having a budget for only a few filming locations. Choose the ones that best fit the mood, texture, and tone of your book. For example, in the hit K-Drama, Descendants of the Sun, the majority of the drama is set in a few locations in the fictional country of Uruk, and just from a single episode, viewers know that when the characters are in that setting, there will be drama, action, and romance! Revisiting settings creates a feeling of familiarity, of comfort, of anticipation, and even of nostalgia, I’m looking at you Hogwarts, The Shire, Tatooine.

Speaking of familiarity…

Tip #2: Set scenes in places that are already familiar to the reader. A lot of the work is already done for you. If you set a scene at an amusement park, you know what to expect: rides, carnival games, and cotton candy. With the Harry Potter series, part of the fun is the boarding school setting, complete with classmate rivalries and dormitory hijinks. Not only do familiar settings give you a great outline to work with, but the reader’s imagination is doing half the work for you!

Tip #3: Name That Setting! Just like naming a person, naming a place helps make it memorable in the readers’ mind. The Capitol. Neo Tokyo. The Millennium Falcon. The Mansion (Yes, this is a Bachelor reference). I recently finished my re-read of Janella Angeles’s debut WHERE DREAMS DESCEND (out from Wednesday Books, June 2020), and so many of the scenes are set in places with memorable names: The Hellfire House. The Alastor Place. The Prima Hotel.

Tip #4: For any significant scene, be purposeful with your choice of setting. This is especially important for openings, climactic scenes, and endings. In both REBEL SEOUL and ROGUE HEART, I open the novel in a way that showcases the futuristic setting because the whole cyberpunk atmosphere is so integral to the series as a whole. One of my favorite novels, MIRROR SWORD AND SHADOW PRINCE, has a climactic scene that takes place on a boat in the middle of the sea during a violent storm where the two main characters are having both a reunion and an epic fight. The storm mirrors the chaotic feelings of the characters, heightening the tension. Now that I think about it, the climactic lightsaber fight scene in The Rise of Skywalker between Rey and Kylo Ren is a lot like this as well, hm.

Tip #5: A vague setting is the death of a scene. This is pretty self-explanatory. If you can’t imagine the setting of the scene, then change the setting.

Tip #6: Settings are always about the characters first. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to focus on when writing a setting, especially in terms of description. When this is the case, here’s something to ask yourself: What would the character notice first? If it’s a place that’s new to them, then their senses would be overwhelmed and they’d notice everything all at once. If they’re an aspiring fashion designer, they’d notice clothes. If they’re hungry, they’d notice food. In my most recent WIP, I wrote a scene in the character’s home, a place that’s intimately familiar to her. And so what does she notice? The slide of her mother’s house slippers against the kitchen floor. The ping of the rice cooker signaling that the rice is finished. These descriptions show that the MC is comfortable in her setting—that these sounds remind her of home.

Tip #7: Weather, the great mood-maker. Rain always heightens a sad scene. Dawn is for running away. The solstice is for witchcraft, the summer for first love. Seasons. Time of day. Holidays. Festivals. Never underestimate a great mood-maker.

Now remember, these are all just tips, not rules. Not adhering to these doesn’t mean you’re not writing great settings. But if you’re stuck, if you need some ways to organize and think about your settings, feel free to take these tips and run away with them!

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