More than Just a Backdrop: How to Create a Fully Immersive Setting

There’s a popular writerly sentiment that goes something like this: “Writing a book isn’t one skill–it’s actually a bunch of different skills working together.” It’s an idea I wholeheartedly agree with. So many elements need to work for a book to come together seamlessly, from dialogue to prose to that perfectly paced plot twist. All of these things can seem daunting to handle individually, let alone all together, so today I’m here to unpack one element in particular that is a common struggle for new writers: setting.

The thing is, setting is actually deeply important when it comes to making a book feel cohesive. Plot fuels your story; characters give you a unique lens to portray it through. But without a fully realized setting, a book can often feel like it’s playing out against a blank background–like stick figures on a chalkboard instead of characters who live and breathe. Part of the illusion of storytelling is creating something that feels like its own unique reality. A strong sense of place is integral to making that illusion work, whether you’re writing fantasy, contemporary, or somewhere in between.

Here are the three major steps I take to make my setting as deep as I can.

  1. Research, research, research. If your book is set in or based on a real place, it’s important that you be as familiar with it as your characters would be. Visiting is obviously great, but if time, money, or accessibility is an obstacle, there are also many resources you can use to help. YouTube videos of specific environments, interviewing people, books, movies, scholarly articles…there’s an incredible wealth of information out there that can help you build the best foundation possible for your story, and tapping into it will only make your work stronger and more fully realized.And if your setting is entirely fictional? Research is still your friend. Creating a second-world place involves deep, careful world building, and it’s important to understand how you’re building belief systems, cultures, and geography–what you’re drawing on, what you’re changing, and why. But that’s a topic for another post entirely, and someone who’s a true expert in second-world fantasy. 🙂
  1. Uncover your setting’s purpose and intent. I urge you to create a profile for each major setting in your manuscript the same way you’d create a profile for each major character, so that you can fully understand the impact and feel it should have on your story. A setting may not seem like it has agency the same way a character does, but it still has a purpose. Environmental settings–everything from local landmarks to climate–influence culture, behavior, and everyday life. And human constructions like houses or places of business are inevitably filled with characteristics that can tell you a great deal about the people who built them. Creating miniature dossiers with relevant links, research, reference images, and descriptions for each major setting will help you understand what purpose it serves in your story. 
  1. Deploy settings effectively to enhance character and plot. Figuring out places of thematic significance to your manuscript and effectively placing them at key points in your plot will enhance your story automatically, bringing out emotions and themes that will take your book to the next level. Instead of having a final battle in a place that means nothing to your narrator, consider setting it somewhere personal to them. Location really matters for big plot and character beats, especially when you consider how they’ll change the tone of that beat. If two characters have a first kiss at a public place, like a football game, it will leave a reader with a very different impression than if they have that kiss in a private, quiet setting–ie, a rooftop or field or something.

If you take time to consider all three of these tips, you’ll be well on your way to creating a setting that readers will sink right into from the very first page.

Christine HeadshotBorn in New York City but raised in Japan and Hong Kong, Christine Lynn Herman subscribes to the firm philosophy that home is where her books are. She returned to the United States to study at the University of Rochester, where she received the Dean’s Prize in fiction and an Honors English degree. Currently, Christine and her books reside in a Brooklyn apartment, along with her partner, many plants, and their extremely spoiled cat.

Her debut YA novel, THE DEVOURING GRAY, will release from Disney-Hyperion on April 2, 2019, with a sequel to come the following year. She is represented by Kelly Sonnack of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

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