Something what sets a good story apart from a great one is the use of setting as a character. A setting is not just description of a place—it gives the reader more emotion on the page. It uses mood and vivid details to put the reader into the story. Setting is also as much about theme and motifs as anything else.
Let’s take a look at one setting, but given two very different moods and themes. Let’s put the main character into a summer garden—or, actually, two different summer gardens:
She pushed open the gate. It groaned on rusted hinges, barely yielding to her shoves. Ivy dangled low from the wall, browned and gnarled, and a willow tree in the corner sagged against the bricks as if braced for her. A wind whispered, dry and cool, brushing through the leaves as if warning the garden against her presence. Sweat trickled down her back and gathered on her brow, and the bees swarmed to her right, the buzz an angry sting of noise to break the quiet.
That’s garden one—now, same time of year, but a very different mood for this garden:
She pushed open a gate that squeaked on rusted hinges, yielding to her shoves as if grateful for someone to come at last. Ivy curled down from the wall in splashes of green against the red bricks. The willow tree in the corner stirred, the long fronds of leaves beckoning with a luxurious shade away from the heat that pressed down on her. The breeze brushed her cheeks, dusting away her sweat, bringing a sweet tease of wild roses and lavender and honeysuckle. Bees hummed through the dazzling colors at her feet, their legs heavy-bright with pollen, wobbling like drunk sailors in a welcoming port.
This summer garden has gone from a touch ominous to a lush romantic spot through word choices—this lets the reader into the world through the character’s senses. Obviously, in the first garden description, the mood is one of danger and tension. We’re going to have a theme of danger and suspense. The second garden offers a lighter mood—this is going to be a fun story, possibly with some hints in the theme of magic or romance.
That’s what description can do for a story—that’s what setting can do. Setting can anchor the reader into the world. It draws the reader into a place and time and into sensations that make the world come to life. It becomes a vivid character if the writer takes the time to develop all the characters.
All this starts with asking a simple question—what is the mood here? You can follow this up with—what would my character notice? You can overwrite—that’s always possible. But by remember mood and what is important to the story, that will tell you what you need in your setting.
Theme will also help you in that it will tell you what motifs you want to use over and over to better weave theme into your story. Perhaps your theme is about the masks we all wear to protect our inner selves, and so masks and their collection or use, or things hidden with shadows and shading will be part of the settings to bring this theme to the reader without hitting the reader over the head. Or perhaps the theme is about rebirth of self, and you want setting to move from winter to spring several times over to bring that them into the story in subtle ways. All this means the writer must pay attention to the real world and the fictional world.
When thinking about setting, bring in something more than sight. We all lean too much on the physical description of things we see, but very often it’s the aroma floating in the air or the notes of music lingering that really capture our imaginations. A touch of jasmine incense could bring in the exotic, or the sour note from an out-of-tune piano clattering adds a jarring feeling to the reader’s mood. Maybe it’s the taste of something—a spice that goes from nose to tongue. Or maybe it’s the shiver of fog on the skin. Go for the very specific detail.
When you’re editing, look at the writing to remove clichés and look for fresh modifiers—and watch those weak verbs.
Notice that in the garden above, I never write: “The garden was overgrown.” That is flat telling and robs the description of the vivid touches the reader needs to be inside that garden. “Was” becomes a weak verb in such a case. Notice the fresh modifiers—a breeze that dusts away sweat, a sting of noise. You may not come up with these in the first draft, so as you edit, look for fresh ways to convey the mood you want the reader to get from that scene.
By vivid, I mean VERY specific. If you don’t have the specific in mind, go hunting in your experiences or in your imagination.
Never been to the Redwoods, but need them in the story? It’s time to get a really good travel guide, or watch a very detailed documentary. Do the same for any profession you might give a character, or for that character’s background. This is the truth in the phrase “write what you know.”
Whenever you can, pull from where you have been and use your own experiences to give you that perfect smell, that right feeling on your skin, the sounds you heard, and the taste in your mouth. A vivid imagination can help, but so can stepping outside—close your eyes and put your other senses to work. What birds do you hear? What about traffic, or the lack of it. If you’re near the ocean, that tang of salt in your mouth will be noticeable—and perhaps that sand itching under your swimsuit as it dries. Think about what details will best realize your setting as a character and a mood, and reveal something to the reader without “telling” the reader that information.
Maybe your protagonist is an artists and the world is vivid colors—teal, azure, verdant green. Or what if your antagonist has perfect pitch and the least dissonate voice is a screech to her? Be picky about word choices, particularly when editing. In a second or third draft, that is a great time to read your work aloud and write in the margin the emotion you want, and then decide if the words pile into the correct cadence and mood.
Look for overused words. Do you repeat the same phrase too often? Is there a “pet” word you fell in love with that starts to hammer on the reader?
Remember that each new scene needs to be “set” for the reader—the reader won’t be happy if left floating in a void. It doesn’t take much—look at the paragraphs above for the garden. Four or five sentence can do the job. If you have a character in that description and that character’s viewpoint to layer in tension, the reader is going to be caught up in the moment.
Above all, take the time—don’t feel that you have to worry about “oh, it’s a slow pace with too much description.” That description allows the reader to settle into the story and the scene. If your setting is a character, that character can bring forward so many more layers to your story that it can move from just okay to a book a reader can’t put down.