When writing a book, plenty of effort goes into building our characters or working out our plots that sometimes the setting of your book world gets a little lost.
This can happen if you’re afraid of bogging the reader down in too much detail, worried you’ll slow the pace by stopping to explain things, or assuming they’ll know everything because it’s set in the modern world.
But you could lose depth by skimping on your setting, depriving the reader of something else to enjoy about your book.
To stop the settings from fading into the background, bring them to life with these tips.
How To Bring Your Book’s Setting To Life
Make It Authentic
Regardless of whether your book is set in a modern city, a ’50s era small town, a futuristic otherworldly planet, or a hidden fantasy world filled with imaginative creatures, you can still make it authentic.
You do this via specific details.
Generic details: “They parked the car under the large tree and went into the restaurant for some food.”
Specific details: “They parked the Chevy under the large maple tree and went into the Cheese and Grill for some warm toasted cheese sandwiches.”
Not the most brilliantly written examples, but you get the idea. Just adding some specifics lifts the sentence to a more interesting, relatable place and gives the reader a vivid setting.
It’s much easier to picture the truck pull up under the sprawling tree full of bright red leaves, and the warm, melty goodness of a grilled cheese sandwich than the very non-specific “car”, “tree,” and “food” in the first example.
Details are key. Add them.
Weave It In
You don’t need the characters to walk into the room and describe every little thing they see to establish the setting, but you can’t avoid describing it either. If you do, you’ll risk the reader not getting a sense of where your characters are.
If the reason you haven’t gone all out on your setting is that you don’t want to info dump or bore the reader, learn to weave the description in instead.
Let the reader know the characters are in a kitchen because they’re raiding the refrigerator, not by describing “A tall refrigerator next to a marble top island bench” like you’re writing a real estate advert.
Have your characters interact with their setting, not simply list what they see in a boring, paint-by-numbers description.
It’s not just the eyes of your character that can relay your setting, but their other senses too. What do they hear, smell, taste, and touch when interacting with their world?
You can bring a busy street to life mentioning the smell of car fumes, the blast of horns, wind whipping through your MC’s hair, and the ashy taste of the dirt that coats their lips as they hurry down the sidewalk.
If it was instead just a visual of “colored cars bumper-to-bumper lined up along the asphalt”, it’s not nearly as immersive for the character or reader.
Use as many of the five senses as you can to bring the setting to life in multiple ways.
Make It Balanced
As much as your setting can be another character or added layer to your book, it’s not the MC.
Don’t overload the reader with over-the-top detailed setting descriptions or go on for paragraphs at a time. If you’re finding yourself getting bored or skipping the parts that delve into the setting too deeply, take that as a sign to pare it back.
On the flip side, if you’re getting feedback from betas that says they don’t understand the world or can’t picture the places your characters live or visit, you might be too stingy with your setting details and need to add more.
It’s a delicate balancing act, but one worth trying to get right.
Use Your Characters
The final tip I have for book settings is to filter it through the eyes of each character. An MC afraid of swimming in the ocean is going to only see the water as something dark and fearful and their take on their setting/world will reflect that.
Another character at the same beach who has no fear of the water would see and interact with the setting much differently. Use that to your advantage when building a picture of your book’s world and let it color how the setting comes to life.
— K.M. Allan