Settings are very important to me. Most of my love affairs with books and movies tie directly into where the characters lived, laughed, and suffered: Green Gables, Toad Hall, the Nostromo, Braveheart‘s Scotland. So when it comes to choosing or creating a setting for a project, I put a lot of thought into it.
Why is the setting so important? Because the character is strongly connected to it, whether positively or negatively, and any emotional connection that your character has can also create a connection with readers. Bilbo loved Hobbiton like it was a person instead of a place, and so we loved it and wanted it to endure for his sake. The Nostromo, the spaceship from the original Alien movie, was cluttered, narrow, and claustrophobic, and Ripley and her crew were stuck in there with an acid-bleeding, face-sucking xenomorph that could be hiding in any of a million crevices. Escaping the ship became nearly as important as escaping the monster. The settings in these examples were key to helping the audience connect with the character, proving that choosing the right setting is an important part of the process. Choose a setting that your character connects with, and your reader will be more likely to connect with it, too.
But what then? Settings, by nature, are spacious and consist of a gajillion minute details, all of which you couldn’t possibly and shouldn’t ever include. So how do you decide which ones to highlight in your story? Try including the following:
Details That Are Necessary
This goes without saying, but it’s important to choose only details that are necessary to the scene or purpose you’re trying to achieve. It’s a hard line to walk. Too little description, and your reader is confused. Too much, and they’re skimming ahead, trying to end the pain. To find the right balance, ask yourself these questions: What’s the purpose of this scene? What details need to be shared to accomplish this? Stick to those details and you’ll achieve the goal of choosing what’s necessary.
Details That Do Double Duty
A setting description should tell the reader about the character’s surroundings, but it should also do more. When details are chosen carefully and shown effectively, the setting can reveal the character’s personality, mood, or biggest fear. It can foreshadow dire events to come, hint at backstory, or provide a symbol that will reinforce a theme throughout the story. If you let your descriptions do double duty, you’ll have ample opportunities throughout the story to drop interesting tidbits here and there that will show your reader exactly where in the world the character is while revealing a little something else along with it.
The shelf in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house didn’t hold vague, nameless knick-knacks; the china shepherdess and brown-and-white dog stood there, items that were especially dear to Laura because of their whimsy. They represented preciousness, and possibly expense, and were among the few impractical items in the house. I remembered those knick-knacks without having to look them up because they were specific and memorable. You don’t want to be overly specific with every detail, or the story becomes an inventory of beautifully-described but pointless items. Pick a few substantial details in the scene and make them memorable.
To see how all of this can work together to create a multi-dimensional and interesting setting description, look at this excerpt from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Somehow, [Maycomb] was hotter back then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
There you have it. Great setting description, symbolism, and foreshadowing, all in a whopping 64 words.
Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert at writing description; if I was, I’d be a bestselling, Pulitzer-prize winning author along with Harper Lee. But the ideas above are a pretty good jumping-off point. Apply them and see if they don’t give your settings a boost in the right direction.