Writing Tips: Setting

Establishing the location of your story is critical to engaging your readers. In today’s blog post, Storybird moderator shonahmarie shares writing tips for setting the scene.

When we as writers describe the location of our character and how that setting makes her feel, the reader is immediately transported into the character’s world.

They say real estate is all about location. The houses with the best view or the most convenient distance from grocery stores, schools, and parks sell the quickest. Location isn’t only important when it comes to where you live, but it’s also super important when writing about the setting of your story.

If you want your readers to feel like they are inside your story, experiencing what your character is experiencing, you need to tell them what you see and what you hear, even if your location is just in your imagination. Sometimes it’s even easier to write about a location that you can visit in person.

Art by jesskcantrell

Let’s say for instance that we write about a coffee shop…

Here I sit in a coffee shop. I can hear the espresso machine churning away and the steamer makes a loud ‘Psshhhh’ as it warms the milk. People are talking near by and I can hear traffic outside and a bus hisses as it pulls up to the stop. My seat isn’t all that comfortable and I shift in it every now and again.

Can you picture me there? Do you smell the coffee? Can you relate to that feeling of trying to get comfortable on a hard chair? That is setting.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, was famous for describing locations to excess. Tolkien went on for pages about the way the field rolled and the grass swayed in the wind. Describing what was in the distance, what was in the foreground and how the character felt being there. Some readers found it difficult to make it through The Lord of the Rings for this very reason. Other readers ate it up, as it really transported them alongside Frodo and Sam as they ventured through the Shire into the unknown.

Art by jaminstill

Have you ever carried a notebook with you and jotted down notes for a story? This is a great way to capture a location you wish to use for later. For instance, does your character travel to and from school on the bus? If so, next time you’re on the bus to school jot down a few notes about what you see, hear and feel around you. Your notes could look something like this:

  • Kids are yelling and laughing around me
  • The bus bounces up and down as it goes from stop to stop
  • The bus struggles to get up the hill to my house and is very loud
  • It smells like old sandwiches and milk
  • My backpack keeps falling forward when the bus stops
  • It’s really hot on my arm as the sun comes through the windows
  • I’m the last one to get dropped off
  • My backpack is really heavy

This in and of itself doesn’t seem like a story, but let’s turn our notes into a narrative…

Art by pixopop

It was a rough day at school today. I was so happy to be going home, though the bus ride wasn’t helping my mood much. The bus seemed just as angry as I was as it bounced from stop to stop. The engine roared angrily and grunted as it made its way up the hill towards my house. I leaned my head on the hot window and the sun shone down on my arm. Closing my eyes trying to focus on something good, the sound of my classmates got louder. I overheard Emily tell Sophie about her crush and how he almost held her hand at lunch today. It’s weird that way, how your senses get stronger when you close your eyes. All of a sudden the smell of an old sandwich and sour milk fills my nose and I gag a little. Just at that moment the bus jerks to a harsh stop and my backpack falls over, again. I lean over to pick it up and spot a rotting sandwich under the seat in front of me. Gross! No wonder it stinks in here. The bus gets quieter and quieter as it drops kids off at almost every corner. Finally the bus makes its last turn and arrives at my stop. The bus is empty now and I struggle to peel myself off the vinyl seat, as if I’ve been sitting here all day. Slinging my backpack over my shoulder, the weight of my homework drags me down and I stagger to the front of the bus. I jump from the top step to the ground in a triumphant finish. Finally, I’m home!

Try jotting down some notes about your location and see if you can use it to beef up your next story. Remember, you don’t have to be in your location to do this. Just go there in your mind and imagine everything you want your reader to see and feel. Then write it down in bullet form and work it into the story later.

Happy Writing!

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