Without an appealing setting, a book feels like a bunch of characters babbling gibberish on an empty stage. Boring, right? Like a lecture on banking law. Boredom is something writers avoid the way cats avoid water (see my previous post—about cliffhangers, of course, not cats). Unfortunately, I just got into the empty scene trap while working on the prequel of One God, and I decided to share my painful experience with you so that you won’t clash with your editor the way I did.
There’s no way around it—you have to put your characters somewhere. I see you cringing, but don’t get discouraged—there are some easy ways to overcome empty scenes, with no setting at all. And because I love number 7, below you’ll find exactly 7 ways to develop a great setting. Enjoy! And let me know if they work for you!
(1) Keep it short.
Władysław Reymont, the famous Polish writer, got a Nobel Prize for The Peasants, which is an absolute festival of long setting descriptions. But this brilliant book would, in my opinion, gain depth if the elaborate ten-page passages concerning fields in autumn, or storks in spring, were removed. So shoot me for the unfavorable review.
(2) Create the setting right away.
Set the background for the scene right in the first paragraph. You can develop it later on if you want, but remember to put the reader immediately into the place you want him or her to see.
(3) Use motion.
Setting is a lot more lively if you include some motion. Let the background change (e.g. light), move (e.g. clouds, animals), or let the characters roam around in it.
(4) Spare the adjectives.
At one point or another, you’ll be tempted to cram, like, eight adjectives into one sentence, but don’t do it. Your editor will remove them anyway, since they just make it look like you’re showing off. I’ve fallen into this trap—English is my second language, so any brilliant synonym I discover goes straight into my novel. Which is wrong, no matter how enthusiastic you are about your second language.
(5) Include emotions.
When we’re happy, even a musty cellar seems cozy. But when we’re pissed off, even a luxurious hotel can seem like a prison. Show how the characters feel about the setting they’re in. This is one more way of inviting the reader into your novel.
(6) Stage the scene with perspective.
A dog perceives the world from another perspective than a fly—obviously. The dog won’t pay attention to fly traps, and the fly won’t care about the scary bubble bath prepared by the human. Remember to show the world as if you were seeing it from the point of view a given person, animal, or thing. And it’s fun!
(7) Use anything interesting you come up with.
I love collages—working on them relaxes me. And I always try to develop one for my readers. Use anything you find interesting to create an appealing setting. Try to focus on something unusual: a beige fire detector mounted on the ceiling that the character notices while leaning back in their chair, a bottle of air freshener in the corner, a broken paper clip, a dead mosquito under a shelf, white spots on a window that the sun tries to bleach away… See? You’re in my studio now. Nice to meet you!