In our second installment in the Creative Writing Elements series, we will discuss how to draw your audience into a legitimately capturing setting.
Nearly every work of fiction and nonfiction relies on some form of setting. According to the ever-reliable Mirriam-Webster dictionary, setting is defined as “the place and conditions in which something happens or exists,” or more specifically, “the time, place, and conditions in which the action of a book, movie, etc., take place,” (merriam-webster.com). Essentially, setting is the world in which your writing lives. It’s the universe your characters inhabit and the location of the breath they breathe. Setting is likewise extraordinarily important in our lives as it gives us important context of where we are and how to behave. You wouldn’t go to the Met Gala wearing last week’s spaghetti-stained pajamas and fumble through all their refreshments…or maybe you would. However awesome as that might be, it’s beside the point.
Anyhow, primarily there are four basic necessities needed to build a realistic setting. Note that the word ‘realistic’ is relative here. As a lover of fiction, ‘realistic’ could mean a utopian underworld in which mermaids befriend giants. Perception is not always reality.
When it comes to building relatable settings, you need four basic elements to make it feel authentic: general information, time period, physiography, and non-physical environment (the various social, cultural, political and media-based elements of your world). General information is going to include all the basics – things like location (utopian underworld, Paris, Mars, etc.), climate, people (mermaids, giants) and the place’s history. For example, in our mermaid-riddled utopia, the upper world may have suffered a flood of biblical proportions or survived an atomic bomb. In a more realistic literary endeavor your characters might live in the Cold War era. Just remember: regardless of where, you need to make the reader feel like they are there. (That rhymes!)
Time period is going to be composed of where your characters are in time. Unless the first part of your work is purposely vague about these things, you’re going to want to give a frame of reference for your readers. Are you in 1920s New York? Battling in 1200 AD? Has your hero lived through 500 years of re-colonizing the planet? Give them something to work with when imagining your world. A sturdy idea of the year or basic time period should be substantial, and the use of time words will give your literary piece a clear sequence. Providing an idea of what amount of time has gone by supplies the needed distance between scenes. In short, let your readers know where they are on the plane of time, be it realistic or fictional.
Now for what I consider to be the most exciting part of all: physiography. Going back to our trusted Merriam-Webster dictionary, physiography is simply “physical geography,” (merriam-webster.com). Physiography is essentially how your world looks. Do you have state-of-the art skyscrapers, entire villages carved into the mountains or bridges spanning vast ravines? Will your characters take a page out of The Princess Bride and outlast the Pit of Despair? Perhaps your heroine is only supplied with a blue goo that sustains them as they travel down some sparkling mystic river in search of her brother’s missing mechanical eye (hey, you never know – it might hold some futuristic map). This is the fun stuff! You get to describe exactly how your universe looks. Don’t get so detail-heavy that you bog your readers down in excessive flora and fauna descriptions, but do give them some great descriptions of where your character’s at in the story. Make them see it.
Lastly, you have your non-physical environment. This is going to be what’s going on behind the scenes and can include everything from social and cultural to political and, if pertinent, media. Are you in the middle of the French Revolution? Perhaps your character is a spy who must blend in seamlessly with foreign culture. Bring it to life! If you’re writing a political thriller, give it some grit and some realism. An undeniably important aspect of this is research. Research, research, research. Trusted sources only at this point (It goes without saying that Wikipedia is not and never will be your best friend. Wikipedia is more like the terrible friend that gives you false answers to an exam the day before you take it and then tells you not to study…Anyway, I’m deviating). Research is absolutely necessary for all of your writing, especially when it comes to political and sociocultural matters. Get creative, but don’t lose touch with what makes it feel real.
Conclusively, please be reader-friendly with all of your descriptions and consider your target audience. Obviously, no sex scenes for the 12-15 year old age range and no War of the Worlds movie-type blood veins for a particularly young readership.
This completes the four main ingredients in the recipe for a truly captivating setting. Utilize these amply and you should have a truly involving, dazzling plot that will hook and hold your reader’s attention. I think one of the best ways of putting the concept of writing descriptively is captured by the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Remember, your reader does not know what you know. They aren’t inside your head, so no matter how much about your characters you know – they don’t know it unless you tell them. Describe it well.
Lastly, today’s prompt is: which book had the clearest setting you’ve ever read about, and what made it so easy to envision? What made it compelling? These are the things that drive novels and other works of literature onward. I can’t wait to hear about it, so please leave your answer in the comments and share with your friends! Don’t miss our next series installment – Thoughtful Theme – which will be published soon!