Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How to Master Setting in Novels

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How to Master Setting in Novels

by C. Patrick Schulze

Have you ever been to war? Have you felt the pulsing of battle within your body? If not, then read author DAVID L. ROBBINS. With his NOVELS, this guy jams his readers into the center of a battlefield in such a way you can almost feel the heat of the bullet as it screams past your head. How does he immerse his readers into the horrific environs of battle so well?

He's mastered the art of SETTING.

With that in mind, let’s introduce those components of setting which give your readers a full sense of the time and place in which you plunge them.

1. The geographical location of your novel
2. The time in which your novel takes place
3. The climate and/or weather in your novel
4. The lifestyle of your characters in your novel
5. The atmosphere or emotional quality of your novel

As to the geographical location of your novel, it helps if you write about a place you know, but it’s often more interesting if you create your own WORLD. Either way, the secret is to be as accurate as possible, for readers can spot a mistake in less time than it took to write it.

The type of story you craft will often dictate the time. The secret is to learn, or imagine as the case may be, as much about the era in which you write. I write novels that take place during the American Civil War. Therefore, I read about the time, walk the battlefields, visit towns of the era, visit museums where uniforms, dresses and quilts of the time are exhibited. Then, as I write, all these things assist when I attempt to create a true to life setting for my readers.

Climate is one of those aspects to setting many writers forget to use it to its maximum advantage in their novels. It offers so much in the way of establishing the mood of a scene. It also gives a writer any number of opportunities to incorporate sound and visual enhancements into their novel.

Lifestyle is an aspect to setting that generally comes out in the novel of its own volition. However, the best writers specifically use this as a tool in constructing setting.

Atmosphere is the mood or feeling of your book, the emotional quality of your novel. Imagine the mournful howl of a lone wolf at night or the cheery chirps of birds at dawn, and you'll understand how setting can alter the atmosphere of your novel.

Why is setting so important in your novel? The major reasons are as follows:

Setting Creates Consistency within Plots and Subplots. A consistent setting can keep it all joined together so the reader mentally stays within a comfortable framework.

Setting Enhances Conflict. Think about a scene with rumbling thunder and stabs of lightning in the inky sky. Does that create more tension than say an idyllic spring day in the park? Should you wish to use that tranquil day among the flowers, plop a flock of buzzards in the middle of the field and see how things change.

Setting Illustrates a Character’s Character. The manner in which your characters speak, dress, move and even curse will evoke in your reader a picture of your character. Imagine a dockhand who never utters a profane word. Would that image provide an insight into your character?

The real secret to setting is to introduce it not in chunks of information, or the classic info-dump. Rather, introduce it by way of your character's action, dialogue and such. As an example, it's probably best not to describe the landscape with narrative. Rather show how the character moves through tall grass, picks the flowers or smells the honeysuckle as it bursts forth and fills the air with its sweet nectar.

Before I close, I’d like to offer you one last tip as to setting. Employ your readers’ five senses. All authors seem to work in sight and sound by rote, but many aspiring writers miss the other three senses. Ensure your characters also smell, taste and feel their surroundings and your readers will do the same.

Are there any tips on setting you'd like to share?

Until we speak again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the now-at-the-editors novel, "Born to be Brothers"


  1. Paying attention to the senses and the experience your characters are having within a specific setting completely makes it believable. I love that you discussed details as small as the weather or plant-life, and making them impressive by having characters interact naturally. Narrative bogged down with too much setting detail can wear quickly. YA Highway also has a really good post on setting today. Can we link you up for Friday? This is great, yet again!


  2. I didn't have many settings in my book - inside a flagship, on a spaceport, in space, etc. - but you're right that the feel of each one is important.

  3. C. Patrick SchulzeJuly 6, 2010 at 9:33 PM

    I always look forward to your requests to link, Marissa. You make me feel like a writer.

    Of course you're welcome to link to the article.
    I appreciate it.


  4. C. Patrick SchulzeJuly 6, 2010 at 9:34 PM

    Say, Alex. You sure about that?