A masterfully constructed setting puts the reader into the story, but to craft such a story, a writer must include the following characteristics in their setting’s description:
Sensory Elements: sight, smell, taste, sound, touch
Think of a story’s setting as a character, which affects the plot, characters, and pace of the story. A character in a remote mountain cabin has different limitations and experiences than one in a congested New York subway station.
When writers assign a year to their story, they give it context. A story in 1940 would include elements of WWII; similarly, a story in 2020 would include the Covid-19 pandemic.
The weather affects the plot, so the protagonist should be covered in mud if they lay in a field after a rainstorm.
Balance the setting’s sensory information for interest and depth. A common mistake in setting description is to rely only on sight: dull. Remember, smell is the most powerful, evocative sense.
If the story is set in a historical time or an unusual place, the objects described must match the geography and period. A story set in the 1800s would not have cell phones, whereas a magical land may contain multiple moons or edible books.
The setting often establishes the mood. A creaky, old, abandoned house evokes fear, and a summer day at an amusement park may stir up joy or excitement.
Settings are often associated with known cultural norms. Think about how people behave in a church, at a concert, or in an airport.
Essential vs Backdrop: The setting can be essential to the plot or act as a backdrop, so a storm in the middle of an ocean is essential to a pirate story but a backdrop for villagers in a valley.
Note: Multiple long paragraphs of description can be dull for the reader; instead, offer the reader morsels of the setting as the plot develops.
Tips for realistic and vivid settings:
1) Stand in the middle of a setting and record everything you experience.
2) Pay attention to setting details in movies. Why did directors include those books on the shelves, the flowers on the table, the empty pizza boxes on the floor?
3) Experience what the characters experience, especially the sensory aspects. What happens when you munch a crisp cucumber, walk in sand, or climb a tree?
4) Use Google Street to view places you’ve never seen, such as the top of China’s Great Wall.