Setting doesn’t make or break a story. I doubt that there are many readers out in the world who throw their book across the room if the setting isn’t perfect. I won’t say that they don’t exist, because never say never, but that percentage of the reading population must be a small one.
However, setting can mean the difference between a good book and one your reader won’t want to put down. The reader may breeze through your setting, seeing the story as characters acting on a sound stage. Your job is to make your reader fall into the room with your characters and experience the story along with them.
The key to a memorable setting is illustrating it through the five senses.
Sight: This sense seems pretty easy because it’s simply describing the setting. Tell the reader that the room contains a ratty green couch, a flat screen TV mounted on the wall, and a thick Persian rug on the floor, and that’s that, right? It’s an okay description. Instead, focus on the little details.
A cluster of cigarette burns, black dots with amber edges, broke up the pattern of gold swirls on the red arm of the overstuffed chair. On the red brick wall across from the chair hung a dozen framed photographs, and smiling faces watched me from behind cracked glass.
Smell: Ever walk into the kitchen and have the smell of fresh-baked apple pie rush into your nose, filling it up completely? Or maybe walk out of a bar only to be enveloped by air stinking of cigarette smoke? The sense of smell tends to be mentioned only at the very beginning of the scene. I’m guilty of this too. So try slipping it in several times over the course of the scene.
The walls oozed the smell of old tobacco smoke, ingrained in the wood after years of smokers inhabiting the hotel room. I sank onto the moth-eaten comforter and sent a breeze of the rank smell upward. I wrinkled my nose in protest.
Hearing: Sounds more often serve the purpose of plot devices than enhancing the setting. The creaky floorboard will later announce an intruder, and street noise coming in through an open window covers up the conversation. Try using sounds to help the reader better imagine the setting.
The Finnegan’s Labrador howled three hours before dawn and thirty seconds before the train whistle pierced my eardrums. I counted four tics of the clock before feet stomped across the ceiling and the window slammed open.
Touch: A reader knows how a warm mug feels against the palm of their hand or how sand feels between their toes. The challenge is bridging that knowledge with the setting and using it to your advantage. The reader should be curled up in their chair with your book in their hands and feel the warmth from the setting sun at the edge of the Caribbean.
The soggy leaves soaked my jeans as I leaned back against the rough, bumpy bark of the old oak tree. A frigid wind sliced through my thin t-shirt. I scooted left and then right, trying to find a stop against the trunk where the roots didn’t press against my tailbone.
Taste: To be fair, this sense can be difficult to express in a setting. That’s probably why I can’t think of a single setting where taste was used. I’m sure I’ve read one, but I can’t remember it. So the challenge here is to make taste an important part of the scene and also make it believable.
Even two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, the air still tasted of sea salt. It was very faint on my tongue, but it was there. I closed my eyes as I rolled it around between my teeth. It was less bitter than if I’d gotten a mouthful of seawater. It had a drier taste. It tasted like home.
How do you make your setting one that’ll stick in your reader’s mind?