5 Steps to Creating Vivid Settings

Setting is incredibly important in fiction. Your readers want to be engaged and submersed in the story. Not knowing what the setting looks like can turn a reader off.

Do you struggle with your settings? I still do sometimes. Check out my five steps to creating vivid settings!

1.    Fresh Eyes

When your reader sees a setting for the first time, you should look at it with fresh eyes. Walk into this house or pizza place for the first time. The pizza place in my novel Lies that Bind is based on a small restaurant in my hometown. I tweaked a few details, but it’s basically the same.

Now, I’ve been in Kennebunk House of Pizza more times than I can count. But I still approached the restaurant with fresh eyes when morphing it into Sammy’s Pizza Joint. Check it out below:

There were a half a dozen booths in the restaurant, two on the left and four on the right. An old television stuck on some news channel hung in the corner by the backdoor. Jake, Lydia, and I approached the counter on the left-hand side of the building. A spinning hot case full of pepperoni, cheese, and supreme pizza sat on the end next to a rack of homemade cookies baked by the owner.

What do you think? Can you see the pizza place?

2.    Use Your 5 Senses

Your five senses are sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. You may not use all five senses in every single setting description, but make sure to touch on them.

The most important one—after sight—is smell. This is something I kept forgetting when writing my book. However, being reminded about smell helped improve my settings. Let’s go back to Sammy’s Pizza Joint:

A wave of heat hit us when we opened the door. Then came the delicious smell of pizza, garlic knots, and French fries. It was all mixed together beautifully under the heavier smell of the fryer oil. This place had the best pizza and French fries in town, which was why it was our favorite after school stop.

Now, do you remember your favorite pizza place? Because that’s all I can smell when I read this!

Don’t forget to incorporate your other senses. Incorporate the feel of a leather chair or the sourness of lemonade. Bring your reader in with these small details.

3.    Don’t Overexplain

While small details can be important, you don’t want to overexplain. In my outline for Lies that Bind I include four pages of setting descriptions so I can refer back to them during scenes. I have every small detail mapped out in this outline, but I didn’t use all of it.

Check out this description of Hattie’s kitchen from Lies that Bind. Notice how I focused on just a few key points, specifically on the size of the room.

The kitchen was tiny, almost impossible to work in. There were three counters, and one of them was taken up by a coffee machine and toaster. We had to hang the dish drainer on the wall above the sink so we could have counter space. The two chestnut brown wall cabinets were so full of dishes and Tupperware they were almost bursting.

The description I have in my outline is longer than this and includes wall color, floor material, and a map. If I used all of that description, it would take away from the story and even bore readers to death. There have been some books—like The Grapes of Wrath—that bored me to death. The settings descriptions could be insane!

4.    Incorporate Emotion

There are scenes where something about the setting changes based on emotion. Soft rain can be romantic or depressing. Sunshine can be beautiful or blinding. Here’s a paragraph where emotion tweaks the setting:

The walk to the door felt longer than it ever had before. It always felt longer in the winter, with the cold creeping under your coat and chilling your skin. But it was like something awful was waiting for me on the other side of the door. And if I had anywhere left to run, I would have.

Sometimes cold weather and snow can be peaceful or beautiful. But in this paragraph, it plays on Hattie’s frazzled nerves.

5.    Location Unfamiliar? Research!

Most of my writing takes place in my hometown or somewhere similar. I know the location and climate, so it’s easier for me. I also happen to love Maine, so that helps!

However, if you’re writing a piece that takes place somewhere you aren’t familiar with, do your research! This does connect back to point three. Do not overexplain. We don’t need to know the entire history of Richmond, Virginia, for example.

Try out these tips and see how your settings improve! Is there anything you think I missed? Let me know in the comments.

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