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DISCUSSION: Crafting a Setting

The Hidden Author
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One of the most common things I make remarks on in a review is the setting, and seeing as there doesn't seem to be a discussion on setting or a tutorial of some sort, I decided that I wanted to create my own.

Let me demonstrate my own setting description by taking from the third chapter of my story, PMD: Unequivocant. This is about a forest known as the East Kaena Woods.

Chapter 03: Cassia from PMD: Unequivocant said:
The autumnal air rushed through the trees, whisking away the red and gold leaves. Sunset richened their colors, and the wind deepened their crisp, as they whirled away into the sky. A worn path wove between the trunks, an ancient relic from a time long past. In the vast sea of yellow and orange, a small clearing poked through, an island amongst the waves. The crackle of snapped twigs and crushed leaves emanated through the air, and the smell and taste of sap alongside it. Bird Pokemon tweedled their melodies, chirping alongside the autumnal foliage.
I think many would agree this is a detailed description of a peaceful, lively forest. But what about it makes it so great? It really has to do with levels of importance of detail. By that, I mean, 'what is the most important detail for the reader to know?'

When first establishing a setting, I find that a paragraph describing it in its entirety works best. I call it introductory description. There are various types of detail, but here is my scale:
  1. Lighting: In almost every case, I find the lighting of the scene to be most important. It changes the mood and environment in ways that can't really be done otherwise. When writing a scene, always bring to mind the level and color of light.
  2. Terrain: I refer explicitly to the ground of the scene and any static obstacles, such as trees or rocks, that tend to be in the background. Not landmarks. This is seond in importance as this directly affects all the characters' interactions within it.
  3. Landmarks/Buildings: A town or village is always built upon the terrain it is within, so the general environment must be set before one can include homes or anything of the like. Landmarks are included here as they are often created by the environment they are set in. If it is the reverse, where the environment was created by the landmark, you still need to establish the environment so the readers can see how it affected it.
  4. Wildlife: Even if wild animals aren't seen, they should be mentioned in some way. I'm aware that many locations don't hold any form of life, but if that's the case, talk about the lack thereof. Show how they interact with the terrain, like moles digging through the soil, or squirrels plucking fruit from branches, or how there are signs that they have been present, like fallen tree gnawed down be a beaver.
  5. Weather: Like lighting, weather affects everything in the mood and tone of the setting. However, unlike lighting, it affects everything in a physical way as well as visual, so you need to have the terrain and wildlife set so you can show how they are all affected. In rainy environments, the ground could be slick or moist, and certain animals might take refuge in the trees or caves, while others might relish the rain and spend every moment in it. No matter the weather--sunny, foggy, stormy--it will always affect everything around it.
  6. Sound: This includes sound created by the terrain or by the wildlife that inhabit the area. After setting the visual tone with the above details, sound is a logical step to bring everything from a portrait to a cinema.
  7. Smell: Just as every environment has a unique sound, they also have a unique smell. Similar to family homes, actually. While it may be in the back of reader's minds, it makes the setting all the better. Many writers disregard smell in their description, but it has a place with sound and sight in that it is a sense we can't really control; we can't choose what we see when our eyes are open, and we can't choose what we hear with our ears. The same goes with our nose, no matter how pungent or subtle the smell is. Touch and taste could be argued for, but they can be controlled simply by characters choosing not to use them.
  8. Aura: This is more of an abstract sense, but the characters often have a subconscious feeling toward the environment that often can't be explicitly seen, heard, or even smelled. It can be oppressive--such as in a prison camp--or it can be mysterious--such as in a haunted house. One should generally avoid using aura in setting description, but when it comes to describing a feeling that can't be avoided, this is the best way possible. It comes after everything else as a last resort.
  9. Characters: After the scene is set, then describe characters. Show what they are doing in the terrain, what they taste in the air, what allergies they may have, or what they might fear or enjoy. This is all individualistic and rarely has bearing on the setting itself, as the characters are all affected by it.
This covers about everything that tends to be described, and is a useful tool when first describing an environment. But you can't just describe an environment once and leave it at that, or else readers will forget about it as they read, so you need to occasionally bring up a detail to jog their memory, or reminder description. Just as there's a scale of importance when first describing an environment, there is a scale of importance when reminding about the environment. Try to integrate any reminder description into character actions when possible, as it can slow down the prose if it is put into a similar format as the introductory description.
  1. Characters & Weather: Obviously, how the character interacts and changes the environments first in importance, and should always be described immediately. Changes in the weather or things affected by it should also be described immediately.
  2. Sound, Aura, Terrain, & Landmarks/Buildings: With these next four, there should only be occasional reminders, and they should generally be described with character interactions or observations.
  3. Lighting, Wildlife, & Smell: These only need to be brought up with the initial description unless it directly affects the plot.
When it comes to actually describing the different aspects of a setting, try to keep it in your own way of speaking as much as possible. You can occasionally use fancy vocabulary words when needed, but those should be kept to a minimum so you can reach the greatest number of readers with the environment as possible.

This is my personal way of constructing a setting and find it works best to establish it, but if any writers have their own way of describing a setting, or if they have questions about mine, feel free to ask! I'm always willing to talk about my process.
 
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Great guide for setting! I've used it to alter my own writing and I'll keep it in mind.
 
The Hidden Author
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Thanks for the likes, everybody! I had a point brought up on Serebii that I thought you should know: while this guide is useful for external settings, internal settings, such as inside a building, were not accounted for! I will make an additional section detailing what should be described inside an interior setting within the next few days, as I am currently in the midst of writing a new chapter.
 
A cat who writes stories
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Sorry that I've left it so long to respond to this or that my response is somewhat brief by my personal standards! This is a great little starter guide, @lucarioknight56, and it's got some good tips I haven't really paid attention to as of yet in my own writing. Namely, terrain, the presence of life, and lighting. I think many writers would be wise to pay more attention to smell, in particular! I only pay so much attention to it myself because my protagonist is literally a cat.

I just wanted to add that while the scene-setting approach is a strong, classic method, an equally valid approach to scenery is to incorporate this sort of description into the narration over the course of the scene rather than having it pre-empt dialogue and character actions. Each approach has its merits, of course! My personal favourite is a compromise: to have an 'establishing shot' when new locations (or old locations in a new context) become relevant but keep it brief so I have stuff to talk about as the chapter proceeds.

Another point I thought might interest people is that if you're writing in a non-omniscient POV, and you switch between character POVs, that it's possible (and good) to have the scene-setting differ based on their perception and attitude. This can involve anything from a more optimistic vs pessimistic outlook, to physical discomfort or pleasure specific to one character, to a character having literally different sensory experiences by way of disability or ability. Experiment!

Thanks for writing this, LK! I hope you'll share more of your thoughts on the craft.
 
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