I’ve been working on a revision of a project and, as I was thinking over the events that took place, I realized that many of the scenes take place in very vague settings. The main character’s house, for example. I have a clear idea in my head of what some of the rooms and the furniture look like, but when it comes to the rooms all fitting together, I have a house no architect would ever design, not unless they were, um, very eccentric.
And eccentric was not the look I was going for in their classic, colonial revival style of house.
So I had to sit down and sketch out a believable design for the house, as well as a layout for the furniture in the rooms. I plan to do it for other scenes in the story. Why? Because setting is so crucial to what takes place in a story. It affects how your characters can move in a space and even what they can do in that space. For example, if you’re writing a mystery and you want your character to shoot someone, you have to make sure to place a gun somewhere in their setting so that they can use it. If you are writing a romance and there’s only one small sofa in the living room, they have no choice but to sit next to each other. However, if there are multiple couches, there are different choices to be made and the character’s actions will tell a lot about them by how they interact with one another within the space of the setting.
Setting, especially a home, is a reflection of your characters. In this particular story, another character called the main character “a control freak.” But her house, and her space, was always messy. One reader pointed this out and asked if the main character really was a control freak. Not that it’s impossible to be both, but it’s important to look at how the two work together and whether or not your setting is contradicting the character you’re trying to establish. And if you are setting up a contradiction, make sure to do it deliberately.
Setting can also show readers who your character is by showing us what they notice in a setting. But how can you, as a writer, know what they will notice if you don’t actually know what’s in the setting? By drawing out your setting, you’ll better know what is in it, which will help you figure out what your character will notice and what they won’t.
Your sketch of your setting does not have to be pretty—it doesn’t even have to be something that you ever show to anyone else—but it can be a very useful tool for you to figure out the blocking within a scene. For me, even something as simple as realizing where my characters kept their garbage can outside helped me work through a snarl in my plot.
What tips to you have for creating a setting? Do you have a particular process you use for your writing?
Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.