Setting is a vital component of a novel, especially in the opening scene, but it's one of the more awkward things to write naturally. People don't stop and describe the landscape, so having characters who do can feel forced. It gets even more complicated when you think about how every scene needs its setting described so readers knows where they are.
To craft a realistic and evocative setting, you want to slip in those details naturally, so the reader gets a solid sense of the location without having it spelled out for them. But unlike world building--which uses the same basic techniques--setting the scene is often more about description. What things look like, where the characters are, what's in the room, the time of day. The goal is to ground the reader so they don't feel lost in a "white room" of ambiguity.
Let's say you want the reader to know a scene occurs on a street in a small town in Georgia during the fall. You could do a tradition scene setter like this:
Bob walked down Peachtree Avenue as the autumn wind blew through him.Nothing wrong here, but what does this tell you about the setting aside from general details that could be any street anywhere? A guy walks down a street and wind blows. If he's in Canada, that's probably cold. Mexico will likely be warm. Arizona won't look the same as Boston, or even Georgia.
(More on how much you need to describe your setting)
General details pop into our heads first when we write a scene. Things that feel right to the image of that scene in our heads, but depend on that knowledge to fully understand the setting we've created. We use shorthand details that bring a lot more information to us than to a reader reading it for the first time.
Odds are the writer knows what Peachtree Avenue looks likes. She knows the temperature and velocity of the wind. She knows Bob's reaction to it and what he does when it hits him. She pictures the leaves and the chill in the air and a dozen or so other details. She also assumes that everyone who reads the word "autumn" pictures these same things.
(More on how setting can affect your story)
I grew up in South Florida. There were no falling leaves, cold breezes, or any other stereotypical autumn details. Autumn was hot, and basically the same as any other day. I picture Bob walking down a street in shorts, his arms wide to cool himself off in that wind.
Sure, readers aren't stupid, and most folks are going to picture autumn as the writer intended, but it's probably never going to feel real to them. Readers aren't likely to get lost in this world and immerse themselves in the story. In critiques, there's a good chance the author will get feedback like: "The setting didn't feel real to me" or "I never felt grounded in this world" or even "I just never connected to the character."
(More ways to ground readers in your world)
To help readers connect to and get lost in your setting, try thinking about details unique to your story, or ones that haven't been used dozens of times before.
Fall (common): Leaves falling, leaves changing, cooler air washing away the summer heat.
Fall (uncommon): The time changing (fall back), the new TV season, breaking out different clothes, starting school, football, holidays, cinnamon smell in the grocery store.
All these details came to me with just a little thought, and I find them much more interesting and evocative than traditional, generic autumn setting details. The more I pinpoint my setting, the more detailed and specific (and unique) I could make these details to my novel.
(More on describing what the reader won't assume)
Grab a blank sheet of paper (or screen) and take a look at your own setting.
Write down the setting. (short answer: a street in New York, Geveg, 1672 Mexico, high school)
Write down the first details that hit you when you think about this setting.
Picture this setting in your head and think about why you choose it for your novel. Look past the basics and really think about this place.
Now write down the details you found after looking closer.
Picture your POV character. Put them in the scene and look out through their eyes.
Write down the details they see.
Odds are you've come up with a lot more interesting details that carry not only setting information, but character and theme information as well. Details were noticed because they meant something to the POV character. Elements were found that excited you about the setting in the first place. Facts that work with your story or theme appeared. Whatever emerged, it's probably richer than the first things that popped into your head.
The first details will likely be the same as most of your readers. Because of that, the scene can feel flat, typical, or just plain boring. Readers have seen it before and it offers them nothing new.
Pull out unusual details and you surprise them. A typical setting becomes fresh, perspectives become interesting, and readers pay more attention.
Writing exercise time!
In 250 words or less, describe a Spring setting
But here's the catch--you can't use traditional Spring words or images. No flowers, no bright green, no new growth. Look for the unusual and personal way your character would describe the setting they're in.
Post your entry in the comments section. Deadline for entries is next Monday, April 29, at noon, EST. I'll choose the winner and post the finalists on Tuesday, April 30th.
Winner gets a 1000-word critique. Previous winners are ineligible to win, but they can still do the exercise if they want. You can even do the exercise even if you don't want a critique (not everyone has something ready). Just say you're doing it for fun and I won't count you.