Aurora… Naturally!

Setting the Scene

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Setting is one of the key ingredients to creating a novel that readers can immerse themselves in. Without settings, your characters would be aimlessly wandering around on blank pages talking to each other. The reader wouldn’t be able to experience the world the characters were in; they’d be more or less locked out.

Avoid white space

White space is basically having no setting. The characters may be talking, for example, but there is no description about where the conversation is happening:

Jasmine met Liam to talk about their school project.

‘Should we get started on our Ancient History assignment?’ Jasmine asked.

            ‘Sounds good.’

            They sat down.

A very boring example, I know, but hopefully you see my point about white space. The reader doesn’t know where Jasmine has met Liam; the reader doesn’t even know where they’ve sat down. It’s as if the characters are surrounded by nothing but white space. It’s an easy problem to fix, just add in titbits of description:

Jasmine met Liam at his house to talk about their school project, where he led Jasmine into the backyard.

‘Should we get started on our Ancient History assignment?’ Jasmine asked.

            ‘Sounds good.’

            They sat down on the grass.

Yes, it’s a very basic description of the setting, but now that the reader knows the characters are in Liam’s backyard, their imagination can fill in the rest about what the setting looks like.

Try not to be a minimalist

The example above falls into the minimalist category, and sometimes that’s all you need, but there are settings—generally the ones where the protagonist hangs out the most—that should be a little bit more detailed. Let’s see if we can flesh out the example from above to make it even more detailed:

Jasmine wandered up the bitumen driveway to Liam’s two-storey brick house to talk about their school project. She wiped her feet on the ‘welcome’ mat neatly placed in front of the door before knocking.

            The door swung inwards and Liam greeted her before ushering her through to the backyard. Ivy slithered along the wooden fence bordering the yard and an oak tree stretched its branches over the grassy ground, scattering its brown leaves.

            ‘Should we get started on our Ancient History assignment?’ Jasmine asked.

            ‘Sounds good.’

            They sat down under the oak tree.

Adding in a few extra details about how something looks really helps add more life to the setting. So whether you’re describing a dinner or a night at the movies, just sprinkle in a few extra titbits. Instead of saying your character ate dinner, tell the reader what they ate: mac and cheese perhaps? And if your character is at the movies, tell the reader what the seats are like. Are they so soft your character gets swallowed by them? Or are they hard and uncomfortable? Is your character’s seat behind someone tall who is blocking their view? Are the lights dimmed when your character walks in? But try not to get too caught up in all the details. Just focus on a few points. 

Don’t overdo it

Sometimes writers go a little over board with their settings and describe everything from what the restaurant’s toilets look like to what everyone in the restaurant is eating. While this definitely creates a realistic setting, it also bogs the reader down and they may lose track of the actual storyline, or might simply fall asleep. Let’s see what happens to our example when we really focus on the setting:

Jasmine wandered up the bitumen driveway to Liam’s house to talk about their school project. Pebbles lay scattered on the driveway, along with twigs that ranged from the length of Jasmine’s arm to the length of her pinky finger. There were plenty of leaves lying around too, most of them with brown dots tarnishing their green shade, a few even had holes in them.

            Jasmine was so busy staring at the leaves she almost bumped into Liam’s door. There was a coir mat out front with ‘welcome’ written in big black letters across it. The mat was stained with years of dirt rubbed off from feet and shoes. There were several pairs of shoes neatly placed on either side of the mat: pink glittering gumboots that would fit a toddler, black thongs in a size 12, red strappy high heels that were so high Jasmine thought she’d break her neck if she tried them on, not that they would fit her, since they were a size 8.

            Jasmine knocked on the door, which she guessed was probably oak. She glanced at the neighbouring houses. The one to the right had a blue tin roof and solar panels, and a garden of roses stretching up a pebble path to the door. The one to the left had a standard tile roof, where Jasmine could see a few frisbees, not to mention plenty of branches and leaves caught in the gutters.

            The door swung inwards with a slight creak and Liam greeted her before ushering her to the backyard. Ivy slithered along the wooden fence bordering the yard, which was probably 200 square feet. An oak tree stretched its branches over the grassy ground, scattering its brown leaves.

            ‘Should we get started on our Ancient History assignment?’ Jasmine asked.

            ‘Sounds good.’

            They sat down on a patch of grass under the oak tree, where Jasmine examined a fallen leaf with a crisscross pattern on it.

I could have made it even more detailed than that, adding in a description of Liam’s house, inside and outside, as well as the other houses on the street. But none of those things are important to this scene. When trying to decide how much description to give a setting, just think about what’s important. Does the reader need to know what the leaves and twigs on the driveway look like? Probably not, but you could mention there are scattered leaves if you wanted to. Does the reader need to know what the neighbouring houses look like? Not unless they’re taking a stroll down the street later for architectural ideas. Does the reader need to know what size shoes are outside? Doubtful, but mentioning the neatly placed shoes would be fine since it adds more colour to the setting.

A good rule to follow when describing a setting is to keep it under five lines. If you have a more intricate description that is longer than five lines, break it up with dialogue or internal narrative.

Use the five senses

One way to really bring a setting to life is to use a combination of the five senses: sight, touch, taste, sound, smell. So instead of just focusing on sight, you can add something about how a particular place smells, or the sounds that the character can hear. Adding these elements will draw a reader into the story even more. Let’s try and use all five in our example:

Jasmine wandered up the bitumen driveway to Liam’s two-storey brick house to talk about their school project. The sweet smell of baking cookies wafted from the house as Jasmine wiped her feet on the ‘welcome’ mat neatly placed in front of the door. Jasmine knocked, the door’s polished wood smooth against her knuckles.

            The door swung inwards with a creak and Liam greeted her with a chocolate chip cookie. It was still warm when Jasmine took it, and the chocolate chips were gooey and melted as she bit into it, the cookies buttery goodness making her sigh in content.

            Liam ushered her through to the backyard, where Jasmine could hear giggling children running around next door. Ivy slithered along the wooden fence bordering the yard and an oak tree stretched its branches over the grassy ground, scattering its brown leaves.

            ‘Should we get started on our Ancient History assignment?’ Jasmine asked.

            ‘Sounds good.’

            They sat down under the oak tree, the fallen leaves scratching against Jasmine’s bare legs.

You don’t have to add in the five senses for every description, but peppering them throughout your story will really help bring your settings to life.

Sarah, Editor at Aurora House

 

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