The Importance of Crafting Connected Settings

Kill Zoners – Please welcome a most-helpful guest post from my good friend and long-time writing colleague, C.S. (Susanne) Lakin, who hosts the popular craft site Live, Write, Thrive.

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Settings in fiction are often a mere mention. Characters are talking and doing things, but often readers get a glimpse of the setting via a few lines of description and a dash of sensory detail on the side—and call it good.

A character enters a building in some unidentified place (town, countryside, the Moon?) and goes into a room that has no description whatsoever. Or, if there is some description, it’s more like a laundry list than a place personally experienced by the character and colored by their perspective and mood.

The character walks outside, where there is no notice of weather or time of day or season. The reader can’t see the neighborhood or the environment. The character doesn’t seem to notice or react to where he is.

Truth is, if a writer doesn’t care much about setting, the reader won’t either.

Is that a problem? Maybe not for some readers. But most people will agree that the task of a fiction writer is to immerse her readers into her story. And story is setting. Characters have to be somewhere while they are talking, thinking, and engaging in action.

Setting can be functional and boring. Or it can be powerful in the hands of a master. It behooves fiction writers to become masterful wordsmiths in order to build compelling worlds.

Chances are, you’ve heard of deep point of view. Imagine a camera lens that zooms in for a close-up. Deep POV is when the description filters directly through the point-of-view character on an emotional level in real time.

When readers see what the character sees and feel what he feels, it allows for intimate interaction and creates a shared experience in which the story comes alive through the character’s senses, thoughts, beliefs, emotional focus, and judgments.

Not every story uses deep POV, but all writers need to work to create a level of closeness between the character and reader, which requires a deft hand to bring about. The setting is the story element that facilitates this.

Experiencing details about the setting through the protagonist’s emotions and senses makes the reader feel truly part of the story. This means that choosing the right setting for each scene is important to not only help events unfold but increase reader-character connection.

Don’t Opt for Blah Settings

Settings work best when they include an emotional quotient. This is where the setting has a specific emotional resonance to the protagonist and possibly other characters. It holds meaning in some way, or acts as a symbol, charging up the scene. I call these powerful types of settings “connected settings.”

For example, it may be that the setting is connected to some past life event and serves as a reminder of what happened as well as triggers feelings associated with it. Imagine a character being asked to an important business lunch in the same restaurant where his girlfriend turned down his marriage proposal. Even though time has passed, maybe years, an echo of that hurt and rejection will affect him while he’s there and, in turn, will influence his behavior.

Choosing a setting that evokes an emotional response is important since a character’s feelings about his environment add realism and tension to the scene while drawing readers in.

Does your protagonist, for example, have a strong emotional connection to one or both parents (who may still be living or have died before your story starts)? By having your character visit a place that holds powerful memories of that parent, positive or negative or both, those emotions can drive a scene, and the memories triggered there can induce conflict.

Let’s say your protagonist has just had a huge fight with her mother over the man she plans to marry. She might drive back to her childhood home or go sit in the bedroom in her parents’ house in which she spent her childhood. There, she might remember the vicious fights her parents had before they divorced and how painful they were to listen to. She might, at that moment, feel a strong determination to never be like her mother. Or, she may suddenly be afraid to commit to marriage, fearing her marriage may end up just like her parents’.

How to Create Connected Settings

So how do we go about creating connected settings? The first step is to brainstorm the best setting match for a particular scene. This is achieved by looking at what will happen in the scene and which emotions are at play.

Think of a scene you need to write. Then follow these steps:

  • Identify your hero’s scene goal—what must he do, learn, or achieve? What do you want him and the other characters involved to feel at the start of the scene.
  • Once you know the answers to these questions, brainstorm different types of settings where this scene might take place, ones that fit the story and are logical locations for your character to visit. Consider what issues your character is dealing with and what kind of environment might escalate inner and outer conflict.
  • Make a list of the scenes with the most potential. Often the settings that pop immediately to mind are the most obvious, but with a bit of digging, some more creative and interesting choices can be unearthed.
  • Once you have a few options, look at each possible setting in turn and think of how you can describe the location to evoke a specific mood that will make your character’s emotional reactions more potent. Tension can be a factor too. Depending on what is about to happen in the scene, you might want your character to feel off-balance. Or maybe you wish to lull him into a false sense of security so he doesn’t see what’s coming. Either way, the details you pick to describe the setting will help steer his emotions.
  • Think about what the character will learn, decide, or do as a result of what happens in the scene. The setting can act as an amplifier for this end result simply by surrounding the character with emotional triggers that will lead him to that high moment at the end of the scene.
  • Think of how your character will change by the end of the scene and if this means a shift in mood or perspective. Consider how the setting can play a part in that mood shift.

Choosing a strong setting for the scene and then seeding it with triggers creates a push-pull effect, one that amplifies a character’s internal struggle. Through his interaction with the setting, we can home in on the needs, desires, moral beliefs, fears, and personal biases that drive his behavior. How the protagonist reacts to these triggers can allude to past experiences that may still have power over him in the form of emotional wounds.

Go through all your scenes and consider the setting. Consider how you might change or alter your setting to give it more emotional quotient, to impact your characters more strongly. Then dig in and rewrite. You and your readers will be glad you did.

Have you chosen a powerful connected setting for one of your scenes? Share about it in the comments.

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C.S. Lakin is an award-winning author of more than 30 books, fiction and nonfiction (which includes more than 10 books in her Writer’s Toolbox series). Her online video courses at Writing for Life Workshops have helped more than 5,000 fiction writers improve their craft. To go deep into creating great settings and evoking emotions in your characters, and to learn essential technique, enroll in Lakin’s courses Crafting Powerful Settings and Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers. Her blog Live Write Thrive has more than 1 million words of instruction for writers, so hop on over and level-up your writing!

22 thoughts on “The Importance of Crafting Connected Settings

    • Glad to hear it! You’ll have fun infusing your settings with emotional quotient. It can lead to increasing the tension and stakes and moving readers more profoundly. Happy writing!

  1. Thanks so much for visiting us this morning, Susanne. This piece gives me a new perspective on connecting the emotional quotient of setting in a scene. I hadn’t looked at it this way. Greatly appreciated advice!

    • Thank you! If characters do have important emotional connection ruins to setting, we writers risk their detachment from the story. I’m always looking for ways to move my readers emotionally.

  2. Welcome to TKZ, Susanne!

    As a reader, I often skip over setting when it’s, as you say, a boring laundry list and slows the action. As a writer, I try not to do that. Your suggestions help. Thanks.

    In my WIP, the Japanese-American owner of a cherry orchard loses his house to arson, destroying deep emotional roots as well as a secret treasure handed down through generations of his family. And there’s a dead body in the basement.

  3. Welcome to TKZ, Susanne! And thank you, Debbie, for inviting her.

    I tend to keep descriptive passages short, but I like the idea of “connected settings,” and I’ll keep the list in mind as I write. Here’s a snippet from my new novel, Lacey’s Star, where the main character is a private pilot who is flying in the middle of the night to get to the hospital where her beloved uncle is possibly in danger:

    “Nighttime flying is like entering another world. In this part of the country, there are just a few lights on the ground, so from five thousand feet above ground level, it’s as if you’re navigating alone in the universe, drifting under a black canopy punctuated by stars. “

    • Hi Kay, love your example. The visual of the lights below also makes me think there is a mirrored canopy with those punctuations below as well. You might think about how the character feels in this moment and if the imagery and sensation can trigger an emotion that can tie in with her worry over her uncle. Is he alone, isolated, in the dark? Using imagery metaphor like that can make the setting powerful.

  4. ❦I’ve heard it said that writers should avoid static settings–restaurants, bars, etc–that are antithetical to action. Amen.

    ❦One screenwriter had a scene involving a character speaking with the Pope. The obvious setting, with the Pope sitting ex cathedra, would be not much better than a fast food place, but a lot more expensive to shoot. So he moved the scene to the Vatican pool, where the Pope is swimming laps and the character is walking back and forth, trying to get his “want” and avoid stepping in puddles of chlorinated water in his Ballys.

    ❦In my thriller, Carl Jung fences with both You-know-who and, later, Himmler. I moved Kehlsteinhaus (“the Eagle’s Nest”) to a place named Bludenz, for its similarity to bluten, German for to bleed. I also found a nearby place whose name, Schattenburg, means Shadow Fortress. What Jungian student could resist a place named ‘Shadow?’

    ❦I gave Schattenburg two settings: a torture chamber and “the yellow room,” each promising nothing good for Carl Jung and his associate, Mary Bancroft. I later discovered that buildings the age of Schttenburg do often contain a yellow room.

    ❦Kehlsteinhaus is associated with the big “AH” but he seldom went there. (Ironically, he was afraid of heights.) It still exists, along with the 400 foot tunnel leading into it. I open the movie version with Jung entering the tunnel, alone, the lights going off at the halfway mark.

  5. Welcome to TKZ, Susanne. Thank you for a very insightful post with some great tips.

    In my last novel, which was also my first mystery, librarian Meg Booker’s connected setting is a Victorian era home which is at the center of a neighborhood mystery involving the owner. Meg is also working on her master’s in history, so there’s a personal interest in the local history, as well as trying to connect the dots between the house and a murder at her library.

    • Hi Dale, thanks. Do you have some unusual emotional connection for Meg regarding this specific house? If you can come up with a feature of it that triggers something in her past or some association that has an emotional component (tying in with a fear, need, etc.), then the connection to the house can be more impacting.

  6. Good stuff, Susanne. I have a scene checklist, which begins with how my viewpoint character feels, then coming up with something surprising or unanticipated that he notices because of that. Surprise, in my view, is what keeps the reading experience from death by boredom (i.e., what the reader expects to happen, happens).

    • Hi Jim, so good to see you pop up here. Do you feel that every scene needs to have a character be surprised by something? And then they react and notice? What about characters that don’t tend to notice their feelings (or even pay much attention to things going on around them)? I love this idea, as it ties in with my approach to have the character change by the last line of every scene (which may or may not be due to a realization).

      If anyone needs a good checklist, I have one too:

      Can’t have too many charts and checklists to keep all the many points in mind!

      • This is my hangout, so I pop up here every Sunday!

        I think every scene should surprise the reader. Often that includes the character, but not always. And what the character notices does not necessarily reveal something to the character, but should create a feeling in the reader, even subtly.

  7. Thanks for visiting us at TKZ. I love, love, love Deep POV, which allows seemingly boring settings to be more alive through the character’s senses and emotions. My Mapleton mystery series has cops dealing with suspects, and there’s nothing exciting about a police station interview room, or the cops discussing something over bad coffee in the break room, so yes, Deep POV helps bring these scenes to life.

    • Right, Terry, any boring setting (or predictable) can be fascinating due to what is going on inside the head and heart of the POV character. And a catchy, unique character voice can keep reader interest with humor and unexpected attitudes or perspectives.

    • Thanks so much, Sue. I have a whole course on creating great settings and the key is always what the POV character is paying attention to, their mood, and their need in the scene. We only notice what we would notice in any given moment.

  8. RE: Don’t Opt for Blah Settings
    Chalk this one up to “Knowing the rules before you decide to break them.”

    While I much admire the writing style of James Michener whose rich descriptions of settings won him a Pulitzer Prize, I have a different need in my current, WIP. My Protag is a young man of modest circumstances pulled into the military during wartime and sent far away to a place with no connections, no friends, no history.

    His living quarters are off base, a large cinder block building, modest by any measure. Thus his very existence is blah. To describe it otherwise would destroy the foundation the story is to be built on.

    The one exception is an eventual girlfriend describes a medieval style lamp hanging by the front door. He made it from wrought iron forged on the apartment’s gas barbecue, a guy with skills. She describes the lamp in internal dialogue as “butt ugly” but when she “casually mentioned” it to him, he pointed out with a citronella candle it keeps mosquitoes out when the door is left open.

    The WIP is a reverse billionaire genre story, in this case a group of girls from wealthy families are sequestered in a finishing school and desperate to escape the suffocating atmosphere. They want to party. With no readily available guys meeting the school’s criteria of “Approved Male Escort,” they decide to invent one.

    They stalk the local area and pick a guy who meets their rather loose criteria (not a criminal, drug user, etc.) Finding a young officer from a nearby technical training base, they know he has a security clearance (they all do) which requires a thorough federal background investigation. They make him an offer.

    He’s lonely and off balance, so he accepts. Not realizing until it is too late, if they get caught, he’ll be strung up by his thumbs in a court martial (JSB’s career death stakes.) The girls fabricate an acceptable cover story for the pauper, transforming him into the required prince.

    He looks forward to having a date with one of these princesses but they have far more complex plans.

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