book setting

Writing the Book Setting — Tips and Techniques

Ann O'Brien

April 18, 2022

Most novels have several settings, and your characters move in and out of them as the story develops. If you want to keep your readers turning those pages, you’ll need to make them feel like they’re immersed in the story. One of the best ways to do this is to create a vivid, compelling book setting.

Why Your Book Setting Matters

A wonderful book setting is more than just the backdrop to your story. With a detailed description, you can make your readers feel as though they’ve been transported to an imaginary world. That will keep them engaged, and engagement is what makes them keep turning the pages. If you create a vivid world, they will enjoy spending time there.

Paint a Picture

In the early days of book publishing, the setting of a novel was critical. There were no movies or TV where people could watch historic recreations, so a writer’s ability to create vivid scenery was the only thing readers had. That’s why writing from earlier centuries tends to be rich in detailed descriptions of homes, outdoor areas, and cities. It was the only way to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.

Today, many writers assume their readers already know what certain places look like from seeing them on screen or in photographs. That’s a mistake, however, because most readers aren’t going to consult an online image search while they’re reading your book. Even modern readers want to feel that they’ve entered a fictional new world created by the writer.

Use a Setting You Know

When writing book settings, you don’t have to start from a blank slate. Think of the places you’ve been, and try to remember what made them stand out. If you’ve ever visited an unusual, beautiful, or otherwise memorable place, recall those things that made it stand out. Was it the unique colors of the landscape? Was it the sounds that surrounded you while you were there? Look at photographs or paintings of the place, and try to recreate the details that stood out to you.

You don’t have to travel to far-off or exotic locations to get inspired. Writing a setting starts with what is around you. If you want to describe a park, take a walk around your local neighborhood park. Sit down and try to absorb the sights, sounds, and colors. If you want to recreate the setting of a school, hospital, or firehouse, you may not be able to visit one, but maybe you can ask someone who works in one.

Visualize Your Book Setting

Your book probably has one or two main settings and several secondary ones. When you describe them, think about the feeling you want your readers to have. If you’re describing a cottage on the beach, you may want to focus on details like the colors of the shutters or floors. Describe the view from the windows. A serene beach setting will help your readers picture the cozy beachside cottage.

What if you want to create a spooky or mysterious setting? Describe the details that make your chosen setting feel strange or scary. Is it shadowy? Maybe strange noises are coming from behind a wall, or maybe there’s damp mold on the walls. When writing a setting, describe these details to give your reader an unforgettable picture.

Some settings are completely fictional. If your novel is set in an alternate universe or a fictional world, you’ll have to use even more descriptive powers to make it come alive for your readers.

Setting Is More Than Visual

To paint a vivid picture, you need more than a physical description. If you want to make a setting feel real, try to involve all the senses:

  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Touch

Make your readers feel like they’re in the middle of the action by describing the sounds, lighting, and sights that surround your characters. A scene in a hospital emergency room, for instance, might feature doctors and nurses rushing past, ambulance sirens outside, the sounds of rolling carts, and other details that convey urgency and fear. If your scene is a nightclub, describe the music that’s playing, the type of lights, and the way dancers are moving on the floor.

If you describe clothing or furniture, tell your readers how the fabric feels. Describe any odors in the room. Scented candles, pine needles, freshly cut grass, and sea air are all well-known scents that will instantly help your readers feel they are in the room with your characters. If your characters are eating or drinking, describe the food.

You can’t always touch on all five senses when writing a book setting, but try to invoke as many as possible.

Keep It Simple

Don’t feel the need to go overboard with adjectives and lengthy sentences when writing the book setting. A few short sentences can sum up the way a place looks, feels, sounds, and smells. The best descriptive writing gets to the point with a few well-chosen words. If you feel the need to describe a place in detail, that description should serve a purpose in your story.

If you think you need more details in your description, save them for later in the story. Your character may return to a particular setting, and that allows you to add more descriptors if you think they’re necessary.

Use Metaphors

Sometimes, the best way to describe something is to compare it to something else. You’re probably familiar with expressions like, “as big as a house,” or “as slow as molasses.” These are overused cliches’, but good metaphors can add richness to your descriptions.

Learn from the Best

If you’re a writer, you probably enjoy reading. When you read your favorite writers, notice the way they create settings and scenes. Here are some examples from well-known writers. As you read these and other descriptive passages, look for ways these writers involve different senses to create specific scenes.

Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land.

–Jack London, “White Fang”

Evening of a hot day started the little wind to moving among the leaves. The shade climbed up the hills toward the top. On the sandbanks, the rabbits sat as quietly as little gray sculptured stones. And then from the direction of the state highway came the sound of footsteps on crisp sycamore leaves.

— John Steinbeck, “Of Mice and Men”

At times, the mist cleared, and the sea for some distance could be seen in the glare of the lightning, which came thick and fast, followed by such peals of thunder that the whole sky overhead seemed trembling under the shock of the footsteps of the storm.

–Bram Stoker, “Dracula”

Set the Scene

The setting of your book plays an important part in the story you want to tell. When you write it, focus on creating a vivid picture your readers can see, smell, and hear in their minds. Use descriptive language, focus on the five senses, and keep it simple. When you’re ready to publish your book with all its wonderful settings, talk to us. At Publishing Xpress, we help writers get published. If you’d like to estimate how much it would cost to print your book, check out our online pricing calculators.

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