The Importance of Setting (and How to Write It): Part One

Hi Folks,

Options_160This might well be the most valuable post you’ve read about writing fiction. I am not joking. I even put a picture on here so you could share it to Pinterest if you want. (grin)

Okay, first, the necessary preliminary stuff.

To start a story of any length, you have to write an opening. The opening most often will consist of 300 to 500 words.

In the opening, you introduce a character, give him a problem, and drop him into a setting. (This doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story. It’s just to get you into the opening.)

If the opening works, meaning if the story wants to keep going (most of the time it will), you write the rest of the story. But everything stems from writing that opening.

In this post, I’m going to focus on writing the setting. The character(s) almost certainly will move through several settings during the course of the story. Those settings will vary depending on what’s happening at the moment. And where it’s happening. And sometimes why. But the setting is always important.

In the opening, you’re trying to get and keep the reader’s attention, and the setting has everything to do with that.

The character’s perception and opinion of the setting will not only paint a picture for the reader, it also will tell him a lot about the character. So it’s important to include the character’s physical senses in every scene whenever possible. Any description of the setting should pass through the perceptions of the character.

The first rule of writing a setting is to Focus Down. Don’t be vague. Give the reader something that will ground him in the story. The reader who is well grounded in the setting is engaged in the story. If he isn’t well grounded in the setting, he might leave the story at any time. So again, don’t be vague. Focus down.

For example, if your story opening takes place “on the earth” or “on the moon” that’s pretty vague. If it takes place on the the southern continent, that’s still far too general to draw the reader in. If the opening takes place in the Amazon rain forest, that’s not much better.

But if the setting is a specific, localized area near the Amazon River in the rain forest— well, now you’ve got something.

The more focused the setting, the more engaged the reader.

For example, take a look at this:

Dr. Steven Zimmer ambled along the narrow trail. The Amazon River rumbled quietly along somewhere to his left. He didn’t remember it being this close earlier. Or this humid.

Sweat. Everything was sweat in this place. The Amazon was probably made of sweat. Sweat had soaked his khaki camouflage boonie hat. It had turned his light khaki shirt and pants dark halfway to his knees. And still it trailed down his forehead and temples.

His streaked glasses kept sliding down his nose. He thought the base camp lay in this direction, but apparently not. Still, if he just continued a while longer, this trail might intersect—

He stopped, his eyes wide. He gaped for what seemed like a very long time, then came to his senses and ducked into the brush alongside the trail. He crouched in the heady scent of passion flower vines, sweeping a broad leaf away from his right cheek. The leaf was drenched in sweat too.

Maybe they hadn’t seen him. Maybe the rush of the Amazon hid any noise he had made. Still, his heart was thumping in his chest. He pushed his glasses up his nose.

Several yards ahead of him, a few native males were engaged in some sort of ritual.

And his stupid camera was miles away for all he knew. In the stupid base camp. Wherever that was.

He frowned. Lost or not, he was still a scientist. He still could observe. He leaned slightly forward, and his brow tightened as he strained to listen.

But the language was nothing more than a series of clicks and clacks. What was he thinking? Even if he could hear it plainly, he wouldn’t have a clue what they were saying. He grinned.

But the grin fled when someone gripped his shoulder.

There. In just under 300 words, the reader is fully grounded in the scene. He is crouched in the brush deep in the Amazon rain forest, curious enough to keep reading and hopeful Dr. Zimmer can get himself and the reader home.

Some will say it’s a lot easier to focus down in such an exotic setting. An exotic setting plays to the imagination. After all, how many readers have ever been in the Amazon rain forest? Then again, a LOT of people have felt sweat, humidity, heard a river, and so on. And that’s where the focus of the scene lies: in the physical senses of the character.

But fair enough. In the next post — The Importance of Setting (and How to Write It): Part Two — I’ll give you another example in a more domestic setting. (grin)

In the meantime, if you enjoyed this example, you can study it and write something similar.

Better yet, copy the techniques (invoking the five senses, using the Return/Enter key to build tension and set pacing, etc.) and apply them to your own openings.

Remember, to begin, all you have to do is create a character, give him a problem, drop him into a setting and write. That’s it. If the opening takes off, go with it. Write the next sentence, then write the next sentence. Keep doing that until the character(s) lead you to the end of the story.

I’ll conclude this with the next post, but there’s no reason you can’t write an opening right now. If you do, feel free to drop a comment in the Comments section below and let me know how it works out for you.

An exciting announcement — I’ve wanted for awhile to turn my personal website back into a writer’s website and let my publisher over at deal with all the other stuff.

If you’re reading this in your email, please stop by and visit the My Publisher page. And when you have time, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to drop by as well. There are and will continue to be some pretty sweet deals over there.

By the way, for those of you who enjoy NaNoWriMo, there’s an excellent blog post you need to read over at Dean Wesley Smith’s website. Scroll down to the Topic of the Night. It isn’t long, and if you follow his advice you’ll enjoy NaNo a lot more. (This is what most long-term professional writers do every month.)

Be sure to be back here next time for The Importance of Setting (and How to Write It): Part Two.

‘Til then, happy writing.


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.

4 thoughts on “The Importance of Setting (and How to Write It): Part One”

  1. Although I’m a poet, i enjoy & learn from your othèr writer advice also, & found the ‘setting’ article so interesting it makes me want to try fiction for a little fun & exercise. Thanks again, Harvey.

    • It’s all the same language. In fact, I teach a seminar called Poetry Techniques for the Fictionist. I also have one on The Craft of Poetry: Structure and Sound. Amazing how many people wouldn’t take it because “I write fiction, not poetry.” I sort of made my bones as a poet in the ’70s to late ’90s. Anything I can do to help, let me know.

  2. “Focus down” is the key phrase in this piece – one I will keep in mind as I approach my work. Thanks, Coach! I am returning to a fiction project that is important to me. The opening is good. Now I know how to make it better! Harvey, thank you for your generosity to the writing community.

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