Ground Your Readers in the Setting

Setting may not be the most important aspect of a novel, but it is critical to a great reader experience. Some genres are almost entirely defined by their settings. Regency romances are set in England during the early 1800s. Westerns are usually set west of the Mississippi in the late 1800s. Southern Fiction is set in the southeastern part of the U.S., but not so far south that you reach Disney World.

The setting you choose for your novel is an integral part of the story. That’s why Setting makes it into my list of Primary Elements. The setting of your book will affect many other elements. A story set in modern-day Pakistan will be very different from a story set in medieval Europe, even though both might be about arranged marriages.

The time and place are established early and portrayed clearly.

I’m not a fan of using chapter subheadings to establish your time and place. You know the ones: Chapter One / New York, 1930. I feel as if it’s kind of a cheat—a short cut. Which isn’t to say it’s wrong. Plenty of respectable writers use this technique, including some of my clients.

setting scene
View of the Empire State Building from Macy’s. Photo by Psongco. • Wikimedia Commons

But I’m going to challenge you to think about whether you can establish your time and place in a more subtle way that’s actively woven into the fabric of your story.

A filmmaker could use an establishing shot of the city, followed by a closeup of the date on a newspaper. But a novelist needs to get inside a character’s head.

Jack walked up Fifth Avenue, past the clang and clamor of the site where Empire State, Inc. was building its new skyscraper.

This is a pretty simple example. The point is to so enmesh your viewpoint character in the setting that he can’t help but experience it and thereby transfer that experience to the reader. If Jack is an unemployed stockbroker, he might muse about becoming a metal worker just to get a job.

Clearly, this kind of opening doesn’t work with every story. Our viewpoint characters won’t always be out and about observing historic events. Sometimes a story needs to start with regular folks in their home or workplace. In that case, the kinds of props they use, tasks they perform, and conversations they have will reveal setting.

In an office, what is the secretary typing on? A clattering old manual? A humming IBM Selectric? What is she wearing? Or is the secretary a man sitting at a desk with inkwell, quill, and blotter?

In the home, when dinner is being prepared, does it start at midday with a teenage girl being sent out to the coop to wring a chicken’s neck? Will her brother have to chop the wood? Or will mom call for pizza delivery?

Dialogue can reveal the gender roles, class distinctions, and political concerns of your story’s setting. The conversation between Scarlett and the others at the opening of Gone With the Wind would not have been the same at any other time in history, even in the same place. Even the very words your characters use can reveal the time they live in. Only people in the Victorian age would speak of antimacassars, and only people of the current age speak of selfies.

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