Level Up Your Setting By Thinking Outside The Box

With writers, there seems to be two camps: those who love writing setting description, and those…who…don’t. There isn’t always a lot of middle ground.

Becca is definitely in the former group. She’s freakishly good at world building. Each setting she writes feels like a living, breathing place, yet distilled to have clarity and purpose, so only the most important bits are shown without disrupting the pace or action.

For many, when it comes to describing the setting, the words don’t immediately flow. Some of us (cough-me-cough) tend to write on the leaner side of things, especially early on, and it is only in later drafts we put more “meat” on the setting “bone.”

Here’s the good news: regardless of whether you embrace setting description or not, one way to level up your writing is to think hard about each location you choose. The “where” of each scene is an important factor, and worth the extra time to plan. Here’s two big reasons why:

It Achieves Story and Character Depth

The right setting can greatly enhance our story, providing tests and challenges for our hero to overcome (the Black Gate in The Lord Of The Rings, or the Cornucopia in The Hunger Games), fortify the character, reminding them of their greatest assets (Hermione and the Hogwarts library come to mind) or allow the ghosts of the past to resurface and shape a character’s vulnerability (the sewers in Stephen King’s It.)

lonely1The location can even reinforce a character’s deepest longing (the Notre Dame stadium in Rudy), and act as a tangible reminder of a missing Human Need (The Incredibles’ Bob Parr, an unfulfilled insurance claims adjustor in his cramped office, who needs to be something more, something greater.)

Takeaway tip: When choosing a setting for the scene’s events, look at what is going to happen, and make a list of setting choices that can reveal something deeper about the characters involved. The setting should act as a symbol for one or more of the elements above, bringing forth deeper meaning and making characters and their desires matter more to readers.

It Offers Readers a New Experience

imaginationOne of the big promises we make to readers is that we will take them on a journey that is somehow new and fresh. A way to achieve this is through setting choice. After all, do we really want to show them the same location they’ve read about a million times before? And while genre might influence the range of settings that one might expect to see, this shouldn’t hold a writer’s creativity hostage.

Take the typical party scene, a common sight in many contemporary Young Adult novels. This event doesn’t always have to be at the beach or in someone’s house while the parents are away. Why not have your teenagers sneak into a shutdown construction site or an empty warehouse that’s up for sale, instead? Add some beer, a few spray cans, and the unexpected appearance of a security guard with a stun gun, and you’ve got a unique setting primed for a storm of conflict, plus you’re offering readers something new to experience.

Takeaway Tip: If you start with the scene’s action, make a list of all the obvious places this exchange or event could take place. Then, branch out, thinking about locations that logically fit with your characters’ general location, but offer fresher setting options.

The Setting Thesaurus DuoMake Something Familiar New

Now if you do find yourself using a familiar setting out of necessity, don’t worry. Just strive to make it unique through different factors. The time of day or night, the quality of light, the season, the weather, and the POV character’s emotional filter will all help you transform the location into something tailor made.

Plus, you can turn your setting into an obstacle course to differentiate it further, because setting is also a vehicle for conflict.

one-stop-for-writers-badge-xsmallBonus Tip!

Not only do our two new Setting Thesaurus books have the sights, smells, tastes, sounds and textures of 225 locations to kick-start your imagination, you can find a list of both volumes’ settings at One Stop For Writers to mine for ideas, even if you are not a subscriber of the site.

Simply register (always free) and view sample entries of The Setting Thesaurus. Subscribers can access all the entries in full.) We’ve even added new ones not in the books, so you’ll find almost 25o different settings at One Stop.

Do you think “outside the box” when it comes to setting? What are some of the more unusual locations you’ve chosen?

Image 1: Antranias@ Pixabay
Image 2: Unsplash @ Pixabay




Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Basic Human Needs, Character Wound, Characters, Conflict, Description, Emotion, Empathy, Mood and Atmosphere, Pacing, Setting, Setting Thesaurus Guides, Show Don't Tell, Tension, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Level Up Your Setting By Thinking Outside The Box

  1. Pingback: Amp Up a “Boring” Story Setting | Writers In The Storm

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  3. Celia Lewis says:

    Ah setting… yes indeed. I need much better focus on using setting more deliberately and creatively. I tend to write very lean, and now I am needing to go through and rethink the use of setting in my current trilogy. (contemporary). I remember slogging through pages and pages of description – 2 full pages between 2 dialogue points! I had to flip back to figure out who was speaking and why. Those experiences make my settings rather sparse, and not at all deliberate. Already I’m thinking of where I can expand one setting space for a symbolic theme.
    Cool. I’ll be reading the Super Six from the newsletter shortly.
    Merci – you are so generous with your ideas for writers, and I appreciate that very much!

    • I always start on the leaner side as well–just my process. I think Becca is more the opposite. 🙂 Either way, these books will help me, and I hope they’ll help you, Celia!

  4. J. says:

    I like doing setting and world building. It’s fun going back and adding in little details. 🙂 But, while starting a new chapter I tend to make it bare bones. I’ve been told that there was too much description slowing it down so I try to only focus on what matters to the pov. This isn’t easy! Argg! I also tend to forget to add in props for them. xP

  5. Jessica says:

    Setting is one of those things I tend to rush past in my first draft. In my second, I have to go back and remember to tell the reader where all the action is taking place. When a setting is new to a character, it’s easier, because they’re looking around just as the reader is, but when there’s action going on in a place the viewpoint character is familiar with, they wouldn’t stop to take in the scenery so it’s difficult to get setting across in the pages then.

  6. Lyn says:

    When I began writing my novel, I chose a fairly remote area in another state I’d never been to. It has a population of 30,842. Why did I chose this particular location? I have no idea. But it has worked out well. I even went across to the other side of the country and visited the town and stayed for a week. I had a blast 🙂

    • That’s awesome! When Becca and I were investigating the locations in our new books, we had to travel to different locations. It was fun and it gave us both some new experiences, too. 😉

  7. Pingback: Level Up Your Setting By Thinking Outside The Box – WRITERS HELPING WRITERS™ – glenniswritingabc

  8. I tend to write heavy descriptions starting out that need pared later. And then as the book progresses, I write leaner and need to add a bit more in rewrites. Different, I know, lol.

    • I think people are either lean and add meat, or write thick description that needs to be thinned. In fact I’d say there are probably more like you than there are me! 🙂

  9. The photo of the (girl?) (hanging?) in the forrest is so spooky…great demonstration of what you’re showing in this post. As always, good post!

  10. Patrick Witz says:

    In our soon to be published short fiction collection, Through Button Eyes, one of my story’s settings was a 125 yr-old Victorian home, a historical town landmark, that was in the process of being fixed and upgrading. It was easy to incorporate a realistic setting into the stoy having just finished helping my daughter go through the refurb process of an identical aged historical Victorian she purchased a year ago.

  11. Great post, as always. I took a course by the amazing Mary Buckham and it changed the way I look at describing settings now. I think settings are their own character, almost as important as the H/H. In my WIP I have an angel trapped in a cave. Lots of room for play there!

  12. Sara L. says:

    I’m definitely in the “I love describing setting!” camp, though I have a tendency to overdescribe what I’m envisioning. (That’s something I’ve been fixing as part of my WIP’s third draft.) But setting is very important, especially if a story is set in a place or time that readers aren’t familiar with. Picking the right details can paint enough of a picture while leaving other aspects to the reader’s imagination.

    As for my story, setting is something I’ve had to be conscious of because the WIP is partly a quest story. So there’s a lot of traveling, which meant paying attention to things like nature / scenery, weather, and what makes each place unique (details, dangers, etc.). It made sense to do this, since a) the MC practices a nature-centric religion, and b) certain locations either give the MC opportunities to prove herself or make mistakes.

    • Sounds like you have a good handle on it, Sara, and you’re choosing the items to describe for the right reasons. The big thing is to always ask how the description you want to include can do more. Rarely does a beat of description simply anchor readers in the story. It can almost always be planted to have a deeper meaning, symbolize an idea, show emotion, characterize, act as a gate to backstory, provide conflict, set the mood, create tension, encourage the reader’s emotional memories to form, supply an emotional value for the scene, etc.

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