On Setting and Atmosphere

Status: I haven’t got a darned clue what to put here. Like a boss, I suppose. Now, where is my tea.

Recently, I have been reading a few books recently in preparation for my Library Haul (back on my own blog), and I found myself receiving mixed signals from the books. Upon some reflection, I found that the books fell into either of four categories. Firstly, they could lack setting, or secondly, that their setting could be slightly off. Third could be that their setting could be absolutely terrible, or fourth (and most rarely), their setting was perfect. These were basically the criteria I used with my biased opinion while contemplating what to review the books with.

And I find that I’ll probably commend each book or critique it for its setting. Which leads me to why I’m writing this post.

Setting is a key element in writing that can be overlooked by writers in the chase of pinning down the plot and characters. I can’t begin to stress how important a role setting plays in creating a feel and texture for your book. It’s essential, as much as your characters and plot is. If I could list the top ten books in my bookshelves, I would immediately say that it is not just because the plot or the characters were great. It is a requirement that the quality of setting and atmospheric presence that makes that book not just engrossing, but enthralling.

Books that have beautiful settings, more often than not, hook a reader and keeps them reading.

Setting of a book can be as simple as helping a reader discern what genre the book is in. Clearly a forest with elves and tree houses would indicate something at least of a high fantasy nature, while a dystopian, metal-ridden city full of psychotic babble would indicate something of a steampunk nature. However, these settings are as easy to place and stick into a novel as much as I could in choosing between tea and coffee or juice and water. What one needs to do is of course, personalize what kind of setting it is, past the generic landscape that majority of writers afford their readers. It’s between choosing lime juice or fruit punch, or honey lemon tea and black strawberry, if you can get my analogy. It’s what detail you add to the surrounding that draws the reader in.

I’ll share three things I notice about surroundings, and how to utilize them.

1) There is a distinct difference between familiar settings and unfamiliar ones. What draws the eye in the two settings will be different. A person will not look around and catalogue everything in their room, because it they wouldn’t need to. A person in a new situation and a new surroundings (say, after being kidnapped), will spend a period of time disoriented and trying to figure out where they are. The transportation from familiar surroundings to unfamiliar ones means they would take stock of their surroundings to gain their bearings. The emphasis, based on plot, determines what your character would observe about their surroundings.

2) Setting in a sense, is a snapshot of your character’s life, especially if they are in a familiar setting. Objects creep into our rooms and make their homes there based on a character’s personal history and all of them have their personal meaning and attachment to the character. Casually mentioning each of them can show an opinion, back story and characterization of your protagonist or side character. I find it to be a very subtle and powerful way of building our impression of them.

3) The way your character will act can sometimes be different in various settings. Again, this boils down to human nature. It’s common for people to act more honestly and more carefree in a setting where they feel safe. Conversely, in a setting which is harsh and intimidating it will be much more obvious that the character will be both more aggressive and defensive. This is a more subtle shift in terms of dialogue, and is usually backed up by the authors understanding of where characters feel safe and protected. For me, my characters always are more honest with themselves and others in their personal lodgings. This is because to be invited back to their homes is a show of trust, that there is a certain depth to the friendship that means that they are able to talk on more intimate terms.

I’m sure as a writer, you can probably think of how setting can strengthen your prose. Would you want to share any other tips? I didn’t have a lot of time to make this post (only half an hour), so any input will be wonderful.

So ends another random post.


4 responses to “On Setting and Atmosphere

  • Lauriloth

    This is so right! I always enjoy a book much more if the setting is well done and interesting. I mostly read fantasy, so I am very big on epic worlds, those things are important to me. Putting time and creativity in settings and not just plot and characters is definitely a good thing for a writer to do.

    I enjoyed this post, Lec!^_^

  • rieishere

    I believe, Lec, that you are brilliant. I want to know why I got scheduled to go directly after you in posting order. You are brilliant. I am not.

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