Our job as writers is to create an authentic story world. We invite readers in through characters, plot, and themes. But the bedrock of your story world is setting. While the emotions and convictions of the character fill the pages and the denouement of plot unravels, setting is the terra firma of your story.
I write novels that reflect a backdrop of an environmental issue or endangered species. I draw the themes of my novels directly from my setting and that mirrors the development of characters, plot, and even dialogue. Setting plays a pivotal role.
How does one create a setting that will enhance the storyline, characters, themes, and even mood of a novel? Here are a few tips I can share from my experience.
3 Tips to Invite Your Readers into Your Story World
1. The Five Ws: Who What Where When and Why
Do you remember the famous first scene of the film The Sound of Music? The movie opens from a high vantage point over the Alps. The camera draws in closer and closer, bringing into focus the details of mountains, the expansive blue sky, the rolling hills of green grass, and finally a figure running to the center of the pasture, and swirling around in an exuberant twirl as she begins to sing. We all got goosebumps, right? The scene went from the big picture of Where, then zeroed in to the What, and then the Who (heroine), and finally the Why of her feelings when Maria began to sing. It took weeks of exhaustive planning and grueling effort to create those few minutes of screen time. The next scene further defines the When as prewar Austria and the What conflict for the heroine: How do you solve a problem like Maria?
The scene includes myriad details for a memorable setting—flora and fauna, local color, daily chores and habits, clothing, and hair.
2. The Power of Who and Why in Setting
Setting comes to life when the reader sees the landscape through the eyes of a character.
It becomes personal. Without this, the setting is bland and reads like a travel description. Emotion is key in creating a powerful setting.
I have the same setting in the opening of two novels. In them, a single woman, middle-aged, is looking out over the Atlantic Ocean—the same coastline, within twenty miles of each other. It is late afternoon. The sun is setting.
In the opening of The Beach House, the heroine Lovie is standing on the beach and observes a young mother trying to gather her children to head home. We see this through Lovie’s POV as she reflects on her own daughter. The emotions are soft and reflective, and the description necessarily includes word choice to reveal that. Looking out at the ocean swells, Lovie also thinks of her beloved sea turtles, introducing the highlighted species in the novel, that will be arriving to nest on the beach soon.
Lovie walked to the water’s edge, right to where the sea stretched to her toes. When she was young—oh, so many years ago—she, too, used to giggle and run away in that timeless game of sea tag. As did her children and grandchildren. But she and the sea were old friends now and tonight she hadn’t come to play. Rather she’d come to her old friend for solace. She stood motionless, feeling each swirl about her ankles as a caress, hearing the gentle roar of the surf as loving whispers. There, there…
In the opening of the novel Sweetgrass, the heroine Mama June overlooks the same stretch of ocean, but her feelings are dramatically different. The same scenery, through Mama June’s eyes, is filled with melancholy and dread. This was an ocean that had claimed the life of her beloved.
Mama June Blakely had hoped for an early spring, but she was well seasoned and had learned to keep an eye on the sky for dark clouds. A leaden mist hovered close to the water, so thin that Mama June could barely make out Blakely’ Bluff, which stretched out into the gray green Atlantic Ocean like a defiant fist. A bittersweet smile eased across her lips. Each time Mama June looked at the battered house, waves of memories crashed against her stony composure. And when the wind gusted across the marshes, as it did now, she thought the mist swirled like ghosts dancing of the tips of cordgrass.
Seeing the landscape through the eyes of the character develops the Why of the setting. I have discovered this to be the most important aspect of writing powerful settings. Using setting to set tone and mood, to inform the Who in character, to introduce themes, and to offer hints at story history builds your story world and helps create a setting that becomes a character in the novel.
3. Writing for Children
My middle-grade novel The Islanders tells the story of three kids spending their summer break on a remote barrier island in South Carolina without cars, stores, or Wi-Fi. As the reluctant children—two boys and a girl around age eleven—explore the island, they unplug and explore, gradually losing their fears of the wild. In time they feel at home outdoors and become friends in the process. Obviously, the setting is paramount. When creating a story world for children especially, focus on the senses. Kids need to hear, touch, taste, feel, smell the world around them. Jake scrunches his nose at the pungent smell of pluff mud. Macon’s jaw drops spying Big Al the alligator. Lovie turns away in disgust at the boy’s old wives’ tale remedy for jellyfish stings. (Yep, you know the one.)
It’s important for young readers to see the island through differing perspectives. In The Islanders, we reveal the island through the point of view of different sex, different race, and culture, varying wealth, from city and suburbs, and also from someone depressed.
Whether you write for children or adults, I ask the same questions: Who, What, Where, When, and Why? My hope is through the emotional point of view of the world around them, I can bring my readers—adults and children—into a story world where they do not merely learn about the wild, a species, pollution, climate change, and the importance of looking after the natural world—but they come to care.