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The Dos and Don’ts of Writing Setting

Are you knee-deep into a new project this NaNoWriMo, or plugging away at a project you’ve been working on for a while? Either way, I’m here to help you make sure your setting shines from the first page to the last with these dos and don’ts.

DO view setting through the character’s eyes.

Your protagonist acts as our eyes for the entirety of the story, so think about what the character would notice about the setting and the world in which they live. If they always smell baking bread when passing a shop, would they think about this smell? If they always pass the same old woman selling ribbons, would they notice her every day? They’d probably notice if she wasn’t there, but if setting details are stable (and not crucial for plot), they often don’t need to be included.

DON’T front-load setting.

It’s so tempting to tell your reader everything you know about the world of your story right away, especially if you’re one of those people who pre-writes with maps and diagram and Pinterest boards (no shame). However, the beginning of the story often isn’t the best place for a lot of setting. You need to immerse the reader in the plot right away and get your characters doing things, so spending a lot of time describing the lush crushed velvet chaise lounges and gurgling fountains at your character’s lush country estate can be a distraction from plot.

DO be specific.

Whether your novel is set in Paris during the 1980s or a made-up kingdom where the fae folk rule, specificity in a setting can make your world come to life. Your character is not just walking down the main street in a small New Hampshire town; they’re walking down Elm Street, past Pearson’s, past the new independent bookstore where the booksellers are flattening boxes, past Sardi’s pizza, where it smells like garlic. By being specific about your scene, your place will feel much more real (and if you want to explore a place with the senses, don’t miss this post).

DON’T be too specific. :)

If you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your setting, it can be easy to go down the rabbit hole when it comes to descriptions. It’s great to evoke a specific place, but plot is key—so look for places where you’re spending a lot of time describing every little detail (like where the character’s parents store their measuring spoons, or how the back room of a restaurant smells versus the front). Pulling back on detail will let the characters and the plot—the most important elements of setting!—shine through.

What elements of setting make you swoon in YA novels? Tell us in the comments below!

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Kat Brzozowski

Native New Hampshirite. Broadway musical nerd. Work team softball slugger. Embroidery aficionado. I’m one part Ramona, one part the monkeys …

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