How to Write Setting – Even If You Don’t Know What it Looks Like

Setting: we all know it. Some of us love it, and some of us hate it.

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Personally speaking, I have always struggled to remember to add in setting details when writing. 😂 I just tend to struggle to actually picture my settings in my head, and that leads to me forgetting about them. Besides, my characters are just way more interesting.

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That said, however, I do think setting is a necessary component of story. You don’t want a reader to feel as if your story is taking place in a white room; that’s not immersive. And, not to mention, setting can actually inspire you to write your own book.

Vibe and Mood

This is one of the big, foundational pieces of your setting. Some people are probably going to give me some weird looks right about now for saying that, but it’s true! 😂

I do rely heavily on my initial ideas for setting, but they tend to be unhelpfully hazy and vague.

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However, such initial concepts are important: they are the rawest, most basic version of your book that you’ll ever get. And, in my opinion, that either means they are either super important to hold onto, or the first thing you’ll want to cut. 😆

Source | Writers @ ideas that refuse to work with them

Some people have expansive, sprawling worlds in their heads that just are… there.

For some writers, world building is the funnest part of writing.

I am not one of those writers.🤣

I do tend to get a general idea of what the world will be like: in The Coffee Shop Book, I knew that it would involve the ocean. In The Triad of Caosdif, it was a medieval world with lots of forests and mountains. (Or like… one mountain. 😂) That was enough for me in The Triad of Caosdif, and I just ran with it, happily writing whatever random shenanigans my little heart desired. But in The Coffee Shop Book, I took some time to flesh it out a little bit more – a process which I shall now explain. *cracks knuckles*

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To begin, try to think of the vibe and mood of your story. What do you want the story to feel like? Is it a hopeful, happy story? Or sad and moody? What setting could you use to convey that? Sunshine? Rain? Greenery? Desert?

The vibe you want to convey can really be determined by the setting around the character that they interact with. You don’t have totally nail down what you want the whole setting to be your first go around; it’s a good jumping-off point to have your vibe nailed down at least, though, because that can really affect the rest of your story.

Pinterest

PINTEREST! Yes, you knew you couldn’t escape without this one. 😆 I talk about Pinterest all the time – but, seriously, Pinterest is my best friend during the brainstorming process.

When it comes to world building my setting, I end up with pictures on my secret boards of the characters, and some include the world around them. Those visuals slowly start adding up in my brain over time to further build up the world in my mind. Every once and a while, I even find a picture that’s just setting the that makes me think of my book.

Swan Princess "You should write a book." GIF
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The hardest part is always starting my board, honestly. You have nothing to build off of, so how do you begin?

Personally, I collected pins for years. I don’t spend nearly as much time on Pinterest as I used to, but I like to go through my old boards and check out all the related pins. I have a board of random ideas I want to write that I sometimes end up moving just to the new story idea, if it includes it – like I have a section of airplanes, one on a murder mystery, and another on lemons. Like, really random stuff that I would like to include predominantly in a story someday. 😆 I also will dig through my public boards on character inspiration and my secret ones, because I know that they at least have pins I like on them.

I also utilize the search bar a lot. I’ll look up certain elements I have in mind for the story – like for The Coffee Shop Book, latte art. 😉 However, my new favourite way to look stuff up is one I learned from Abbie Emmons: you’ve already thought about the vibe of your book, so now just pop that into your search engine and add on the word aesthetic: stormy aesthetic, beach aesthetic, coffee aesthetic. Literally, try the last one; you’d be surprised what the internet already has created for all these things. 😆 They’re just waiting for you to find them!

Over time, I find that this all really helps build up my world in my head. Obviously, some stories need more world building than others – fantasy worlds especially. I will present to you my sister’s blog for that, since she’s done a lot more of that than me. But for the rest of us who know nothing and don’t need to intensely world build a fantasy world, let’s continue!

Know Your Setting

Okay, probably not what you expected me to say right after I said we know nothing. 😂 But this is the magical trick when it comes to creating your setting:

You don’t need to know everything.

You only need to know more than your reader.

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This is kind of the tip-of-the-iceberg concept: only the tip shows over the water, but there’s a lot more underneath. Those ginormous icebergs you see floating on water? There’s still more to them beneath the surface. The Titanic hit one of those suckers, and it went down.

When it comes to writing setting, the thing is, you only need it to feel like there’s that substance under the surface. As long as you know more, then the reader feels like there is more.

How do you do this when you yourself don’t know everything, though?

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This is the dark secret of creating setting that I only discovered after years of being a writer:

You don’t have to tell the reader everything.

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Yes, that’s right. I am giving you complete permission right now to not tell your reader everything about your setting.

Most beginner writers get this wrong: they’ll spend time on their world building, and make sure to tell their reader all about it from the get-go. In fantasy stories, you might even hear all about the setting before you even so much as meet the protagonist.

But that’s the wrong way to do it.

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If you only give the reader a couple of details, they will actually fill in the rest of them themselves. To be honest, the writer never can give a reader the full picture; we need to leave it to the reader to make the world truly huge and immersive in their mind. By only giving them a couple of details, you’re actually handing them the ability to build your story up in their mind in their own unique way. A personalized version of your book literally exists in everybody’s minds. I mean, how cool is that??

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This all begs the question, of course, of what do you give them?

Three things, my friend:

  1. what is important to the scene
  2. what is important to the character
  3. or what makes the setting unique.

The Scene

What is important to the scene?

Sometimes, it can feel like everything is. But, in reality, you only need the pieces that set the scene: the ones that determine the tone and mood of the scene, or that are impacting the storyline in some way.

For example, if you want something kind of cool and disconnected from emotion, you might describe the fluorescent lights and linoleum flooring. Or, if you are in an office, maybe you’d describe the way a chair squeaks as someone shifts in it, the tap of a pencil on a desk as someone thinks, or the busy clatter of a keyboard. Anything that sets the mood for the scene.

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The Character

This is the biggest one that you need to think about when writing: you only need to describe setting as it is filtered by the character.

A lot of the time when it comes to setting, we can forget that the character isn’t going to be seeing and noticing every detail that we have spinning in our heads in that moment. I mean, have you ever been in a situation where you had an information overload? You end up focusing on just one thing: the most immediate detail, or the one that is the most important to you in that moment.

When you are trying to describe setting, describe it as it becomes important in the story. What is important to the story will first and foremost be determined by what is important to the protagonist, as they are the lens through which we see the story.

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It doesn’t even have to be a huge thing; for example, the character could just be walking among trees, and you could introduce the fact the trees are there by mentioning how the character guides their friend around some of them. Or, maybe the room they’re in is a particular shade of pink they despise. Or maybe the smell of chocolate cake is permeating the air and their mouth starts watering.

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Unique

What is unique about the setting? Something that you would have to tell the reader for them to know?

The caveat to this one is, of course, that you shouldn’t info dump it all at once. I have read books before where some of the super important history about the world wasn’t explained until a couple of chapters in, yet it was referenced to by the character several times, as they already knew it. That withholding of information actually served to make me more interested than I was before, as a sort of suspense arc.

Even in a contemporary novel, your setting could be unique because of the character. It almost serves to reflect the character’s personality, in a way, especially if it’s their room or home or something. You might describe the way everything is colour-coded to show how neat the character is, or maybe that pile of dirty laundry in the corner that may or may not have been last week to show how lazy they are. (We can neither confirm or deny that it was actually there.) (Jokes aside, you actually wouldn’t confirm that if the character was kind of living in denial 😉)

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For example, years ago, when I wrote my manuscript The Storm Inside, my protagonist had a twin sister who was the complete opposite of her. Part of that was the way one was neat, and the other super messy.

Amanda entered the room she shared with her twin sister, Gina. Boxes were strewn across the floor and stacked precariously as if Gina was trying to make a crazy parkour course in their room – or maybe their grave. Amanda wasn’t sure which yet.

“Have you seen my shoes?” she heard her sister call out from the general direction of her bed. It was hard to see with all of the boxes where she was exactly.

The two halves of the room were practically as different as the two girls themselves. Everyone around Amanda was always wondering how she and Gina could possibly be sisters, much less twins, and sometimes she herself questioned it.

Amanda’s side of the room had no boxes left. Her clothes were in her drawers and closet – mostly consisting of the color black – and her bed was neatly made. The only thing out of place was her bookshelf, which she was carefully reordering. It was a complex mix of by favourite, color coordinated, and alphabetically, author and title-wise.

“Which pair do you even want?” Amanda called out. “And shouldn’t they be in the front closet?”

“I keep my fancy shoes in here.”

“You aren’t wearing the bright red ones to this test, Gina. You aren’t Dorothy.”

Gina’s head popped out from behind the boxes. “The bright red ones? I have several pairs in different shades of red. Which ones are you referring to?”

“The obnoxious ones.”

“O-o-oh, you mean the ones with sparkles! Yeah, you hate those.” She nodded, looking sagely and wise. 

I had to include the full snippet once I read the dialogue. 😂 But anyway, you get the idea.

Start Small

Here’s the thing: 9 times out of 10, setting is not the most important thing in the scene. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that it never is the most important thing; character always is. However, when it is the most important thing to the characterthen it has importance.

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So, you don’t want to spend eons describing your setting. Instead, start small: throw in small details as you go.

For example, I struggled with showing setting in one of my first scenes of The Coffee Shop Book. Once that got pointed out to me, I went back over it and slipped in some small descriptions of the setting.

Doctor Walker shifts in his chair across from me. The plastic squeaks with age as he continues.

Doctor Walker shifts in his chair again. We’re sitting across from each other in his small office, a white room with black scuffs marking the floor from years of patients dragging their heels as they crossed it. I can almost swear that the chair I’m in now is the same one as I used to sit in years ago for appointments with him.

I bypass the receptionist’s desk, avoiding eye contact and making a beeline for the doors.

I’m 90% sure the last one was actually an older one, but I thought it was a good example of showing setting without even giving much detail. I barely described the desk, or the room, or the doors; just what was important to the character in that moment. You, as the reader, pictured something while reading that – your own personalized version of my story.

Which is epic. 😆

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Use All 5 Senses

If at all possible, use all 5 senses.

Mention how creaky the white plastic chair the character is sitting on is, or how the room smells like dust and secrets, or that the sun is blinding them by reflecting off the snow. Talk about how the character’s heaving breath is puffing out in front of them in the cold air, or the way the river sounds like it’s whispering over the rocks. Describe the smell of earth after a rainstorm, or the way a character almost slips on a patch of ice on the sidewalk, or the way a chocolate croissant just melts away on their tongue.

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You can get pretty creative, honestly. As another example, I’m actually going to show you the first time my protagonist walks into the coffee shop in The Coffee Shop Book. *le gasP*

There’s coffee being ground, patrons chatting, clinking of glasses, and music that hums in the air, loud enough to make its presence known but quiet enough that I can’t make out the words; the smell of coffee drifts through the air, and paintings hang on the wall, colourful and bright. It’s warm and welcoming, and everything, everything is a symphony of colours in my mind.

This is literally the peak of my achievement in describing setting. 🤣

Start Small

I have two quotes that sum this up better than I could:

The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.

Richard Price

There’s a famous one as well that sums this up, but in all actuality is only an abbreviated version. I decided to include both. 😆

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

In May, 1886, Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander, who had literary ambitions: “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”

The idea here is again that you don’t have to tell the reader everything. It can overwhelm a reader sometimes to try and tell them about everything; instead, if you make it small, it becomes easier.

Harry Potter 'Poof' GIF
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Inspiration

There are some people who love to write setting and world building.

I am not one of those people.

But I do love to surf Pinterest, to picture my characters and what is important to them, and to trick readers by not actually describing everything very much.

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I love putting together a vibe for my book; all of this really helps inspire me, and the mood and tone of the book is ultimately what determines my setting.

Don’t forget to save this post for later!

Setting can be really tricky to nail down, but, as you can see here, I’ve kind of begun to figure out over the years how to trick readers into thinking I actually know what my whole setting looks like. 🤣😝


If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

How to Avoid Info Dumping

Why All Writers Should Be Using Pinterest

How to Use Suspense and Tension to Make Your Novel Insanely Addicting


I feel like setting is such a given thing in a story that sometimes writers forget that we struggle with it. 😂 I mean, we can see what’s happening in our heads, so we assume everyone else can as well. I hope that this post helped you somewhat to figure out how to write setting in a very minimal manner. 😜 If you want more writing tips like this that are a little *cough* outside the box *cougH* then make sure to subscribe!

If this post helped you in some way, maybe consider buying me a Kofi (or chocolate croissant 😜)! It helps support me and my blog, and will help me to build to even bigger and better things in the future.

Have a great day, my friend; write on.

What is the best setting your have ever read?

What is your favourite setting you have ever written?

Do you have any tips on writing setting? (I’d love to hear them if you do!)

-Julia

Photo by Jay on Unsplash

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