“If character is the foreground of fiction, setting is the background,” the narrator of Writing Fiction tells us. But how do you create engaging settings that enhance your story? And how can the popular writing software, Scrivener, help you create setting sketches perfect for particular your story?
People (and characters) are a product of their environment, for good or for ill. In order to write compelling stories that draw readers in, you have to not only know your setting intimately, but be able to manipulate that setting to bring out the best and worst in your characters.
A good setting can take on personality traits of its own, and some tend to think of a setting as another character in the story.
However, all settings have to start somewhere. In this post, we’ll go over a classic method to help you flesh out your settings early in the process so that they can become a vital part of your story.
What Is a Setting Sketch?
A setting sketch is an outline of a fictional place. What it looks like, smells like, feels like. You can discuss a setting objectively, as an author, through the lens of your own experiences, or you can take the same setting and examine it through the eyes of a character.
Settings also create an atmosphere and tone of your story. Horror stories are great examples of setting because they create an atmosphere of fear that is almost palpable; it’s what makes them, in their own unique way, such gripping stories, whether you’re working with a haunted house, a zombie apocalypse, or a ruined castle.
As with character sketches, I like to start with visuals using Scrivener’s cork board interface.
Character or Setting Sketch—Which Comes First?
Last week, we talked about how character sketches can help you flesh out the characters in your story, and this week we’re going to continue the discussion by talking about how setting sketches can help you craft a unique and compelling setting.
You might be wondering which should you work on first, your character sketches or your setting sketches?
Both character and setting sketches are fundamental to the planning phase of the creative writing process, but the order in which you tackle them is really up to you.
I’m of the mindset that you can do setting, character, or plot (which we’ll talk about next week) in any order that makes the most sense to you. Play to your own strengths.
One of the points I’ll be emphasizing as we go through this series is that you should develop your own process, and adjust these tactics and tools to fit your style.
Using Template Sheets in Scrivener for Setting Sketches
We went over how to use template sheets in Scrivener last week for character sketches. Using template sheets for setting sketches is exactly the same. In fact, you can put as many template sheets as you want in Scrivener, so if you need multiple setting sketches to look at a particlar setting from the points of view of each character, the world is your oyster.
Sidenote: I reference Scrivener’s features and include screenshots of the software, but you can still use these methods without Scrivener. Simply create a separate text file for each character and keep them in a folder named “My Story – Character Sketches.” If you’re interested in Scrivener, Joe reviewed it here.
Visualize Your Setting
Start with a notecard for each setting in your story. If the whole story takes place in one room in one house, you might only have a single card. More likely though, your story takes place in multiple settings.
Try to be as specific as possible with your locations. Instead of “New York City,” name your card “The Village” or, even better, “Artichoke Pizza in the Village.” The more specific your setting, the more likely it is to come to life.
Once you have all your setting notecards set up, go out and find a single image that feels like your setting. There can be discrepancies between what you see in the photo you choose, and the actual setting in your story. The idea isn’t to find a photo that represents your story in every way possible, but to capture the spirit of that particular location so that you have a place to start your sketch.
(Again, I explain how to get photos onto the notecards in Scrivener in the previous article on character sketches.)
If you find it necessary to use more than one photo, you can add more inside the Scrivenings view of a particular setting, where you’ll be doing the sketch itself.
Write About Your Setting
Now for the fun part: open up a setting and start writing.
Here’s a screenshot of what the default template sheet for a setting sketch looks like in Scrivener. I’ve filled it out with one of the settings in my novel:
Aim for 500+ words. Any more than that, I find, is icing on the cake. But any less than that and you may find yourself coming back to the sketch to flesh it out more as you write. That’s okay. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around.
An Alternate Setting Sketch Template
Here’s an alternate setting sketch template you may use in your writing practice. This is my preferred setting sketch, and I keep it in a separate template file I created for any future novel or short story I create.
What I like about this version, compared to Scrivener’s default, is that it’s less prescriptive and more free form. It leaves room for the imagination to run wild, cuing you with suggestions rather than specific questions. For example, you see in the default sketch above, the label “season”? All I wrote there was “summer.” That wasn’t important to my story, so it was really just a waste of a label. In my sketch below, I’ve combined “Weather & Seasons,” as I find that there is a lot of information to mine with both those categories, whereas a season alone isn’t very significant in the stories I want to tell.
Maybe this will change over time. You have two options here, so mix and match until you find what works for you.
Setting Sketch Checklist
How do you know when you’re setting sketch is done? Again (the nail is in, stop hammering!), that depends on your own unique process. You’re done when you think you can squeeze any more juice out of the setting you’re working on.
Just in case you’re still not sure, here’s a checklist you can run through that may help you out. Consider each of your setting sketches and ask yourself:
- What unique atmosphere does this setting evoke?
- What important role does this setting play in the story?
- Would my story be the same if I changed this setting? Why or why not?
- Go through the weather patterns: rain, wind, snow, hot, cold, humid—what about this setting is consistent in each type of weather? What about this setting is inconsistent?
- What year is it in this setting? Why does that matter?
- How has this setting influences each of your characters?
What do you think about this method of setting sketches? How would you do things differently? Share your tricks of the trade in the comments section.
Here are five writing prompts to help you develop settings for your next story.
- Make a list of settings in the story you’re working on. Give all of your settings unique and interesting names.
- Find photos on the internet, and drag them into scrivener (or add them to your Word Doc).
- Spin a globe—wherever your finger lands, sketch that place. You’re not allowed to search google first. Use only what you already know and what the name summons to your imagination. When you’re done, search Google and compare it to the research about the actual place. What’s the same? What’s different?
- Pick a destination you’ve traveled to (even if it’s only across town). Sketch that place from memory.
- Write about all the extremes of climate: the arctic, the sahara desert, a tropical rainforest, the surface of the moon.
- BONUS: Describe your settings from the points of view of all of your characters, in two to three sentences for each one.
Use what works, throw out anything that doesn’t.
Using one of the practice prompts above, write, sketch, or find for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, share what you have so far in the comments section.
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Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.