The best way to sell a book has nothing to do with creating a platform or schmoozing with editors at writers’ conferences (though neither of those things hurt.) It’s writing a book that’s what agents call bulletproof—one so good that no one in the long chain of approvers can resist it.


In this blog, I talk a lot about the business of publishing, which is in a fascinating state of flux at the moment. I also write a lot about the process of submitting one’s work. But every now and then I like to take a step back to consider the basics. Writers who want to sell their work  must learn to write on their own dime; they need to master their craft. Dare I suggest that for people with writing talent, time invested in learning craft– by reading books on the subject, taking courses, working with mentors and good critique groups–will ultimately yield better results than the same amount of time spend networking?

This is part two in a series of blog posts about the craft of writing. It’s adapted from one lecture in a course I teach at called One Good Scene, and it focuses on the importance of setting. In a later post I’ll go into the nuts and bolts of describing setting.

 Every scene takes place somewhere. That particular place and time may be actual or imagined, but that setting must feel real to the reader or nothing that takes place there will feel real. The way to accomplish this is through description that is vivid, concrete, and specific. I’ll talk more about the techniques for conveying setting in a later post; right now I want to focus on its functions in the scene.

Good writing is efficient writing. Novels may be expansive compared to short stories, but all the parts must mesh together and function in tandem or the thing won’t run. Thus setting should not be chosen at random any more than characters should be. Rather, it should be an integral part of the whole, chosen to enhance whatever the writer is trying to accomplish in that scene.

Like every other element in fiction, it should multi-task.  Setting always serves to enhance the reality of a scene, but it can also define and affect characters, advance the plot, reveal themes,  and create an appropriate atmosphere. D.H. Lawrence, no slouch in the setting department, wrote that “setting provides an ‘emotional landscape’ upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony.”

In real life, all of us have a relationship with our environment. It affects us and we, in turn, affect it. On a macro scale, think of global warming; on a micro scale, think of the impact one person’s troubles has on his home or work environment.

In fiction, too, there is a necessary relationship between character and setting. Sometimes that connection is overt and in the foreground. In THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, for example, the sea serves as the antagonist. In a story about a pioneer family staking out a homestead, the push-pull between human desire and nature’s power  is likely to be an explicit part of the story’s plot and theme, as well as a testing ground for character. In a haunted house tale, the setting provides plot as well as characterization, since the characters’ reactions to what happens there will shed light on them.

But even in stories whose setting is kept in the background, there is still, or there should be, a relationship between setting and characterization. Our characters’ homes, their possessions, the contents of their drawers: all these can reveal much about them, if we pick the right details to highlight.

Fiction gives us the ability to inhabit our characters and see through their eyes. As you describe your setting, always consider whose eyes you’re seeing through. What your viewpoint character notices about his environment  tells us as much about him as it does about his surroundings.  A cop walking down a city street will notice completely different things than a love-struck young girl walking hand-in-hand with her boyfriend down the very same street.  In Pete Dexter’s wonderful novel Paris Trout, the title character runs a grocery store in the pre-refrigeration South. When his wife walks into the store unexpectedly, he looks at her as he would “six crates of melons that showed up unordered.” How much does that lovely bit of description tell us about Trout and the state of his marriage?

Setting  Reveals Theme and Create Atmosphere

For examples of settings that embody a book’s theme and create its atmosphere. think of the great Gothic novels: the descriptions of Manderlay in Rebecca, of the heath in Wuthering Heights. As John Gardner wrote, “Description is the author’s way of reaching deep into his unconscious.” It is symbolic, not because the writer deliberately plants symbols like someone secreting Easter eggs around the yard, but rather because the symbols arise out of the writer’s deep, often preconscious understanding of what the book is about: its theme.

Because descriptions appeal directly to the senses, they evoke the emotions that are linked to those sensory memories, some of which are fairly universal. The smell of fresh-cut grass, fresh-baked bread, or a baby’s hair are likely to evoke not only images but feelings in the reader. And those feelings create a certain atmosphere.

To illustrate, here are two different versions of a brief scene:  a character walking to his van.

1. Caleb walked down the street to his van.


What do you know about Caleb from this line? Where is he? What time of day, what season? What does his van tell you about him?  How do you feel about him? What sort of feeling does the scene leave you with?

Don’t know? Let’s try version 2.


2.    Caleb shuffled down the avenue in his oversized duffle coat, his cap pulled down low. He kept to the curb, skirting the light cast by plate-glass windows full of Christmas decorations and fancy goods he couldn’t afford and wouldn’t want if he could. His stomach growled at the smell of roasting chestnuts and spitted meat, but he passed the carts without pausing. Women were all around him, soft and fleshy, streaming out of office buildings, weaving between cars,  pooling on corners as they waited for the lights to change, bending to adjust a shoe strap, flashing their legs, swinging their shiny hair, laughing and talking, though never to Caleb. He saw them, but they never saw him…until he was ready for them to see.

He circled the van before opening the door, checking for tickets, but of course there were none; he’d been careful to park legally. The van was a white Dodge Caravan, not so old as to attract attention but too old to warrant stealing. The exterior was grimy, the interior immaculate. The engine was good. He hadn’t had to do a thing to the van since taking it off the old man, except for the tinted windows, and those were a necessary expense.


What do you know about Caleb? Where is he? What time of day, what season? What does his van suggest about him?  How do you feel about him?  What sort of feeling does the scene leave you with?

Can you answer those questions now?

What about your own work? As you think about it now, is setting integral or incidental to your stories?


More on settings

More on craft

Information on ONE GOOD SCENE and my other online writing workshops

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

19 thoughts on “Settings

  1. Thanks for this. Setting is something I struggle with, not because I can’t do it but because I often forget to put it in. It’s there in my mind and I forget the reader doesn’t automatically see what I see. I also think I worry about putting in too much so I err on the side of not enough. I’m still working for that perfect balance.

    My draft is coming along well!

    • That is my problem, too! I’m on the second draft of my first book and a full MS assessment highlighted that it was ‘visually blank’ ; which really surprised me because I had been able to see everything clearly in my mind’s eye when I wrote it. But a re-read confirmed the omission and I am now correcting….

      Barbara, your observation about the time spent networking and creating a platform really struck a chord too – from all I had read online it seemed to me that my ‘platform’ should be very important and something which I needed to work on – and so I have. But I began to feel that I ought to be spending more time writing – after all, what use is a platform if its empty?! I have since cut back the time I’m spending online in favour of writing…

      • It’s easier to say than do. I was eased onto Twitter by Viking marketing people who believe it’s the most useful platform when well-used, and it ate up a lot of my time till I learned to manage it better. Still a work in progress…

  2. For me, I can’t think of the importance of setting in a story without immediately thinking of Stephen King’s Gunslinger series: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” The whole series takes place in a shifting landscape – literally shifting, forming and dissolving like a dream – that mirrors the desolation or richness of the characters’ inner lives.

    My settings aren’t there yet, but I’m working on it. Great reminder, Barbara! Thanks.

    • Excellent example. But now you’ve got me started, too. What about the Tolkien books and the Harry Potter series? Brilliant settings bring as much to the stories as the characters do.

  3. There’s currently a raging discussion going in a Linked-In group between those who defend description and those who want to cut it to the bone. As in many such discussions this one has veered off into abstractions, but doesn’t it come down to context? Some writers can’t resist describing elements of a scene that don’t advance the story or give us a paragraph when a sentence would do. Do you have a rule of thumb, a Rogan razor as it were, to help us decide how much is enough?

    • I’ll have to take a peek at that discussion. I sometimes lose patience on Linked-in—with so many laying claim to so much expertise, it’s often the blind leading the blind.

      I think how much description you use is largely a matter of style. If I told you there’s a rule I’d be lying. But the writers I admire most tend to be generous with description, not piling on tons of details, but rather working hard to find the right details and arresting ways to convey them. Pat Barker, Pete Dexter, Ron Hansen, Dennis Lehane, Elizabeth Strout—they’re not flowery writers at all but generous in that way. Strip away too much description and the story becomes conceptual, too much of the mind and not enough of the senses.

      • A Rogan razor! I like that. A tool we should all keep in our box, I think.

        I much prefer the well-told, concentrated descriptive detail to a paragraph of trees waving in the wind. Definitely an aadjustment that belongs in the rewrite, though. The initial draft is for flowery description, run-on portrayals of place, and excessive basking in nature. Then turn up the heat in the rewrite and distill, distill.

        • Distill, or add. Some writers include too much description in first drafts, while others are in a rush to capture the story before it can escape, so their first drafts tend to be “visually blank,” as another commenter mentioned. But certainly second (and third, and fourth, etc.) drafts are were great ideas get turned into art.

  4. If I’m paying attention, I usually manage to get a few good descriptions in, in the character’s pov.
    What happens to me often, though, is that I’m in such a rush while drafting, that I barrel through a scene, to find out what happens. Then, when I go back to edit, since I already *know* where they are and what it looks like, I forget that other readers won’t.
    So necessary and in-pov description is something I have to always remember to sprinkle, while editing…

Your thoughts?