Adgitize Press

Make Your Settings Do Double Duty

By: Ken Brown
Published: 7/2/2019

5 Points to Improve Your Scenes

Do you want to make your settings stronger, richer, and a more integral part of the story? Here are five key points to improve your scenes.

  • Describe the Characteristics of the Setting
  • Give the Setting Human Qualities
  • How does the Setting Affect the Character
  • How does the Setting Affect the Plot
  • Come up with a New Setting

Describe the Characteristics of the Setting

Tell us about the setting. It can be a hospital waiting room, crowded with sick people. Or two angry men in a small studio apartment during a snow storm. One of the two men would be willing to stalk out the door, but there is nowhere for them to go. The room turned smaller when Gregg stood up.

Describe the scene, the plants, the smells – most writers miss the smells, but the sense of smell is one of our strongest memory senses. One of my strongest smell memories is waking to the smell of frying bacon and cigarettes. Whenever I smell that combination I'm instantly reminded of being in my grandmother's house while on a family vacation. How can you use a strong smell combination to help your readers enter the story?

What does the character hear? The sound of the street or birds in nature? What does your character see? Will your character touch something? What? How does it feel? Smooth, rough, textured, or slimy, is it a rock in a stream or a rock along a granite cliff? How does the smell of the forest compare to a hospital setting? The sounds of machines recording heartbeats and pumping oxygen, the hush whispers as people talk about loved ones in the hallways.

Give the Setting Human Qualities

The best writers will make their settings an additional character. Our protagonist is trying to save the girl from the bad guy. But there’s this weather pattern that has a life of its own. You show the fury of the storm, but use human values as you describe it.

The arm of the storm struck Bill in the face forcing him back behind the building. The storm reminded Bill of bullies he struggled against as a kid. You faced the bully and didn’t let him get the upper hand. Bill put his hand on his hat and ploughed into the wind.

How does the Setting Affect the Character?

How does the setting affect the character? Is that small room claustrophobic? Don’t tell us the room feels claustrophobic. Show Mark sweating and his pulse rising. Is he having trouble breathing? His companion is telling him things he doesn’t want to hear. She’s bringing up something that happened earlier in his life and he doesn’t want to relive that event. He can feel the blood vessel in his brain is about to burst. He tries to loosen his collar.

How does the Setting Affect the Plot?

Imagine you're writing a story about a ballet dancer hoping to make it in the big times. She practices at night, but she has to have a day job to pay the bills. Many beginning writers will make her job as a waitress or bartender or secretary. Boring. What if instead of a waitress, you make the aspiring ballet dancer a worker in a steel mill? Wow, that changes the texture of the story doesn't it? Imagine the contrast you can make between the steel mill workers and your little ballerina.

How about your character having trouble with his boss? The woman is a bully, making the employees afraid they'll lose their jobs if they don't get the project completed in time. Your character goes to the zoo and they watch the gorillas playing. But there is one large gorilla that is bullying the other gorillas. Can you see your character making comparisions between the gorilla and his boss?

How will the setting affect the plot? There is a movie that was popular many decades ago called, Twelve Angry Men. Every scene is played out in a jury room as they try to decide the fate of a suspect. Eleven of the men want to vote guilty. But one man has doubts. Nobody can leave the room until they get a unanimous decision. What do you do when you have a character that thinks best walking outside in the sun, but they are stuck next to people they don’t like, that smell from last night’s dinner and aren’t like themselves? The setting of the jury room becomes another character in the story.

Come up with a New Setting

Do you get the sense that one of your scenes isn’t working? Then come up with a new setting for that scene. Take the scene out of the family’s kitchen and place it where you can make a comparison of what’s being talked about with the setting. Imagine a young man who wants to see the world and he’s talking to his parents who want him to stay local. The boy wants to become an oceanographer and get a degree from a college in San Diego, California, yet he is trapped in the small town of What Cheer, Iowa. A small town of barely nine hundred residents with a history of a coal town.

The conversation in a park with sunshine and a nice vista is different compared to the same conversation in a cramped room at night with poor lighting and the way the character feels. What if the conversation happens at a funeral home where they are mourning the death of a grandfather who never left the state he grew up in?

Look for ways to enhance the pain your character experiences with settings that tighten the feeling of being trapped or scared. Be sure and use the sense of smell to bring back reader memories.