If you were to ask what is the most crucial element of any story, I would be the first person to shout out ‘characterisation’. Clear, well-constructed characters can carry a story that may be poor in other areas, whilst inconsistent, flimsy characters can undoubtedly destroy an otherwise stellar narrative. However, what you are aiming for, of course, is a story that is well-rounded and complete in every way. And when it comes to setting, some writers either brush over detail entirely, or merely throw in a few references here and there in their haste to just get on and tell the story. In doing so, they fail to capitalise on a powerful – and often crucial – element of the narrative.
Not all writers are so flippant, of course. Authors of Fantasy, Science Fiction or Dystopia, for example, are well-versed in the art of world-building. To create an entire new environment and translate it successfully to the reader is as vital to their book’s success as the presence of believable characters. But does this mean that a Comedy Romance set in contemporary Oxford need not be too concerned about what’s going on outside their characters’ lives?
Well, not everyone will know what life in Oxford is like... but even when your story is set in a time and place the reader recognises, incorporating elements of setting will shape its unique perspective, enabling the reader to better visualise the ‘world’ your characters inhabit. After all, we are all products of our environment in one way or another.
So just what are the ‘elements’ of setting: surely it’s just telling the reader where the scene is set, I hear you cry. But what about culture, tradition, unique experience, I cry back. Setting is more than just place – it’s everything...
Okay, everything is a lot. Think of setting as a long tunnel with you standing at one end looking down the narrowing passage to a glimpse of daylight at the other end. Setting is about what is down there on the outside where that daylight peeps through, as well as what is in front of you right here where you stand. Or in other words, it is the town, country, world you live in and the room you are in and chair you sit on. And the easiest way to make this existence ‘real’ for your reader is with the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
What better way to demonstrate what I mean than with the master of setting himself...
Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (1932) is a veritable tutorial in using setting to ultimate effect. In its depiction of a Scottish rural community during the turbulent period of the First World War, setting is inseparable from the events and characters when it comes to driving the story. And this is no overstatement by Grassic Gibbon: his story is as much about the land in this region as it is those living upon it.
‘Below and around where Chris Guthrie lay the June moors whispered and rustled and shook their cloaks, yellow with broom and powdered faintly with purple, that was the heather but not the full passion of its colour yet. And in the east against the cobalt blue of the sky lay the shimmer of the North Sea... and maybe the wind would veer there in an hour or so and you’d feel the change in the life and strum of the thing, bringing a streaming coolness out of the sea.’
Sound – the moors whisper and rustle
Sight – moors yellow with broom; faint purple heather; cobalt blue sky
Touch – the wind blowing from the North Sea; coolness
Here is the first introduction to main protagonist, Chris Guthrie, and she couldn’t be more enveloped in her setting – she’s practically rolling in it – signalling even at this early stage the importance of environment to the narrative. No long, drawn-out, detached descriptions here; Grassic Gibbon uses the senses to make us readers feel we are the ones lying out there upon the moor, with sure knowledge of our surroundings and climate and how the two converge and contrast with one another.
Note: He also uses second-person POV very cleverly to draw us into Chris’s world – even though the ‘you’ is referring to Chris herself.
‘The wet fields squelched below her feet, oozing up their smell of red clay from under the sodden grasses, and up in the hills she saw the trail of the mist, great sailing ships of it, going south on the wind... she could never leave it, this life of toiling days and the needs of beasts and the smoke of wood fires and the air that stung your throat so acrid...’
Sound – squelching of mud
Smell – of red clay; wood fire smoke
Sight – hills; trail of mist
Touch – of the wind; sting of the air
Taste – the acrid air in the throat
By this point in the book, Chris’s brother has left and her father has died. Initially believing herself now free to leave the land, here she suddenly realises the security it offers her: whilst people may come and go, the land remains the same and has done for centuries. In this pivotal moment, she recognises she is bound up in it; with all her senses she is tied to it: more, she is a part of it. The wet squelching fields under her feet almost hold her in place, whilst the mist – like a fleet of ships – sails away without her.
In this particular novel, setting is the additional character – it makes the story. And whilst setting might not be as significant to your own story, it can still have an exciting role to play in creating that world you want your reader to step into. Crucially, too, setting can be subtle – it doesn’t need to consist of swathes of description that you don’t want to write and the reader will thoughtlessly skip over. Never underestimate the difference that small details here and there can make to your world-building and, ultimately, to the connections you make with your readers.
A few ways to consider the senses in conjunction with setting:
Sight Architecture. Landscape. Weather. Objects. Traditions/customs.
Sound Nature (rural). Traffic (urban). Weather. Dialect. Conversation/silence.
Taste Food. Nature (rain/salty seawater/dusty air).
Touch Materials. Objects. Nature (flowers/trees/water/sand). Climate.
Smell Nature (grass/flowers/mud/sea). Food. Exhaust/factory fumes.
Grassic Gibbon, L. (1932), Sunset Song, 2006 ed., Canongate Books Ltd, Edinburgh.