One of the most common problems I see from beginning writers is that they either have too much description, which drags on for paragraphs or even pages, or they have too little, and I’m left to experience a story about characters in empty space. Finding that middle ground between too much and too little is vital for establishing a vivid sense of place. Just like everything else in writing, it’s an acquired skill.
The setting of a story is not something you need to describe all in one place—and that includes the setting of a single area in your story. Rather than thinking of setting as either something the reader needs to digest all at once, or wondering WTF setting even is, I want you to start thinking of it as a drum.
Yes, that’s right, a drum. A huge, round bass drum at the back of a dark stage. The drum is surrounded by torches that flicker an orange glow across the orchestra. The stage is decorated with movie props from The Lord of the Rings. And the orchestra members are outfitted in costumes.
See what I did there? I set the stage (literally) and gave you a mental image for this drum. That’s all it takes to ground your reader in a sense of place. Think of your favorite song. Think of the drumline of that song. Maybe you’ve barely noticed it before, maybe it’s your favorite part. But the one certain thing is that it is always there—a steady, forward-driving force.
Just like a drum keeps the rhythm for an orchestra, your setting keeps the beat for your novel—or, at least, it can, if you deliver it correctly. Several years ago, one of my college creative writing professors introduced me to a concept she called One Sense of Place Beat Per Page. And yes, it’s as simple as it sounds. As you write or revise, make an effort to put at least one sense of place beat on every page. And by the end of your book, you have hundreds of setting beats, which have kept the rhythm throughout the story, grounding the reader the whole time. Is your book 500 pages? That’s 500 setting beats spaced over the entire story. Do you see how that is so much better than cramming half of those beats into four pages—or how much more detail that can provide than leaving it out entirely?
Remember: the important beats that help drive your central conflict need to be placed deliberately. If a beat needs to appear early in order for the plot to make sense, then place it early. And don’t feel limited if you’ve used a beat before—readers like to be reminded of the setting. Just deliver it in a different way each time.
Now, the delivery of the sense of place is just as important as the setting itself. You’re not going to want to say “the orchestra members are all outfitted in costumes.” It doesn’t do much to evoke a strong mental image, and is, in fact, a classic example of telling rather than showing (FYI, we’ll cover Show vs. Tell in a separate blog post). Keep in mind: your initial delivery of a sense of place beat doesn’t need to be the most beautiful piece of literature you’ve ever written. That’s what revision is for—your first draft should never be your final draft. So, “the orchestra members are outfitted in costumes” could be my first draft placeholder, which I later revise to “the strings section wore grey robes reminiscent of Gandalf,” which gives you a much better picture.
Your setting is one of the most powerful tools in your story. It has the power to convey and drive conflict that other elements of your novel don’t. It has the power to ground and captivate your readers. Think of your favorite stories, and likely, the first thing that comes to mind is setting. For me, it’s Hogwarts, Middle Earth, the Death Star, Battle School, and the Southern Water Tribe. Your story can evoke just as vivid of a setting as these—you only need to know how to put it on the page the right way. Keep in mind the image of the drum. Your sense of place has a rhythm, and if you punctuate that rhythm, your setting will shine.
Writers’ Clearinghouse empowers authors and agents by providing low-cost, at-a-glance evaluations of entire manuscripts, with emphasis in twenty specific areas (including sense of place) that tell you exactly where your manuscript stands, its strengths and weaknesses, and what you can do to improve it.