Okay. You’ve picked the perfect setting for your story. You can describe it so clearly and compellingly that your readers will want to move there. Is that all there is to it? You might as well ask if I’d like plain vanilla ice cream or Ben & Jerry’s Everything But The… It’s a no-brainer, people. Maximize your setting to upgrade your story from vanilla to Mmmmmmm.
Set the Mood
Mood can be defined as the feeling a story evokes. Stories can be creepy (Pet Sematary), uplifting (Anne of Green Gables), tranquil (The Wind in the Willows), or any other emotion you want to put across. And the mood doesn’t have to encompass an entire story; different scenes or sections within a story might make you feel different ways. Creating mood is tricky, requiring careful writing across the different elements of your story. The character’s attitude and actions can reflect the mood you want to convey. Word choice will have a strong impact on how the audience feels while reading. Conflicts can propel your character toward a choice, or right into a particular mood. And then, of course, you have the setting. Want to convey a feeling of uncertainty? Make the weather unsettled—balmy one day, sleeting the next. Include things in your setting that can add to that uncertain feel: a lopsided power pole that wavers in the wind but never quite falls; a car that may or may not start; an early freeze and a citrus crop. Before you write, think about what mood you want your story or individual scenes to convey, and decide what you’ll use in your setting to reinforce that feeling.Pick a Symbol
A symbol is something that stands for something else. Symbols add depth to the story because they’re things that just about everyone can relate to. They create connections between your reader and the characters because the reader gets that the howling wolf is scary to the character, or that the chuckling river gives him a feeling of tranquility. However, your symbol will only work if it’s appropriate to your story. The setting is a great jumping-off point for choosing your symbol. Let’s say your story contains a recurring theme of escape. What from your setting can be used to signify that? Medieval village: empty stocks. The farm: a bird flying away. Contemporary high school: the dismissal bell. Use symbols right out of your setting to add depth to your story. For more information on symbols, check out the Symbolism Thesaurus on our Thesaurus Collections page.
Use Metaphors and Similes
Closely related to symbols, these comparisons are used on a smaller scale to compare one thing to another. You probably know the specifics: a simile uses the words like or as to compare one thing to another (her shrill voice was like a tiny hammer in my brain), while metaphors make the comparison without like or as (her voice was a tiny hammer, beating against my brain). Like symbols, these comparisons are vital to drawing the reader in. But where symbols often recur throughout a story, metaphors and similes lose their power if overused. Their vitality is also sapped if the comparison is weak. So choose wisely (said the old guy in the third Indiana Jones movie). Choose comparisons that make sense for your character, your genre, your audience, and also for your setting. Let’s say you’re describing a stray cat and you want to compare it to something in the scene. Historical fiction in the Old West? It was a mangy thing, more tumbleweed than cat. Contemporary? The scrawny cat strutted like a third-string quarterback who’d finally been put in the game. At the beach? It looked like the ocean had rolled him around for awhile before spitting him out on the sand. Choose comparisons that fit your setting and your descriptions will be enhanced.
Don’t Forget the WeatherWeather can be a crucial piece of the picture you want to portray. The challenge here is to avoid those dreaded clichés. Here are a few tips on how to use the weather to your advantage without resorting to hackneyed writing:
- As always, choose your details carefully. If the weather doesn’t provide anything but backdrop, just give a quick overview. The blizzard was finally over. Or, I hunched my shoulders against the icy wind.
- If the weather plays a bigger part in the story, engage in good descriptive writing techniques. But don’t fall back on standard weather descriptions, many of which have been overused to the point of staleness. Instead of going into detail about the rain, which would look the same in almost any setting, describe something in your scene that’s being affected by it, like the withered plants or the umbrella-less woman. This will give the weather a fresh perspective that’s specific to your setting.
- Lastly, be careful to avoid weather clichés: the rainy funeral day, the thunderclap that foreshadows impending doom. When things like this happen in real life, it’s completely coincidental, so why do we keep forcing them in our writing? A rainy day can be a cozy one. The bright sun may be soothing, but the glare could cause an accident as easily as a rainstorm. Whenever possible, switch it up and make the weather in your story work for you.
Read on to Part 4:
Part 4: World Building
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.