Writing Advice: Characterising Your Setting
By Emma Evans
We are all familiar with the concept of a setting – and I’m sure can list off famed settings in a sort of roll call of the greats, too. Here, I want to look at writing settings in a slightly different way, or rather, look at aspects of setting you may not have considered in depth, which may help characterise settings further. I’ve chosen two points to focus on today, in particular, and hopefully they will be useful for you to put into practise when considering setting in your own pieces of writing.
What does that mean? In short, it means exactly what it says. Take a garden setting. What colours are the flowers? Is the garden path made out of large grey paving stones? Is the garden bordered by a fence with a beanstalk-like vine clinging to it? Take the inside of a large stately home. If your piece is set in a period drama-type genre, what is the grandfather clock made from in the corner as it chimes?
Simply, the inclusion of these tiny details enhance imagery for the reader. Think of the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz. Road alone gives us a setting, however, the inclusion of “yellow brick” enhances the imagery evoked of the setting undoubtedly. When the yellow brick road is discussed, readers will think of the literal, yellow-coloured bricks that make up the road, therefore enhancing the description of the setting from the ‘basic’ road. Moreover, the enhancement of your descriptions in this way are reflective of how we see things in real life. We see things in colour and the inclusions of colour in setting descriptions undoubtedly will help readers to see your setting as they see real life.
Tiny details are also ways of adding more description into your writing. It adds another dimension to your description – allowing you to be general in describing the setting as a whole and then focus more closely on individual aspects of your setting which contribute to the overall image trying to be created. An extra layer of creativity can be added, particularly in the sense of exploring your setting through the inclusion of tiny details. Take the earlier example of the grandfather clock, the inclusion of that as part of the setting description and giving some focus to it can add character, enhancing the setting in that case, as a whole and adding character to an already characterful piece because of the nature of the period-drama genre.
One of writer Mark Twain’s most famous quotes is to “write what you know about.” Usually, this concerns storyline and characters in the piece but arguably could also go beyond that and include setting also. Certainly, writing what you know about may add authenticity to your piece if that is something you are particularly considering and trying to include. Basing a setting for your fictitious world on a place you know well will help to characterise your setting. Writing from what you know – in general – means you will have an awareness and knowledge of the finer details you could call upon to use as inspiration for your settings and descriptions for these settings.
For example, maybe there was a park close to your childhood home that you spent a lot of time in, and there’s a specific tree people local to the park loved. Maybe there was a bench in that park that holds some sort of significance to you? These examples are finer details from somewhere familiar to you that could pose inspiration, therefore adding authenticity.
Basing a setting off a place you know can add a realness to your story and descriptions, in the same way writing storylines based on what you know can also add realness.
You can take inspiration from the ‘finer’ details of a place – the inclusion of which will already add a creative dimension to already existing descriptions of settings – that you know well. Knowing something well, through experience or seeing it in real life, will arguably add more of an interesting dimension to your writing.
Writing is an experimental process, refined by practise and experimentation. Arguably, focusing on tiny details of your setting – as well as the bigger, fuller picture – is an experimental choice to make. Throughout your setting descriptions, don’t forget, balance description of ‘finer’ details (arguably looked at through a ‘zoomed in’ lens) with the more omniscient ‘bigger picture’. The look at the finer details of a setting can add to a description, but don’t forget the foundations of a setting that also need to be described – a garden, a park, a football pitch…include that too!
Finally, if it seems a little difficult – try it and see, you might surprise yourself!