3 Dimensional Settings: Living, Breathing Backdrops

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A skilled writer knows that a setting is more than just physical details. It transports the reader through the senses, utilizes imagery, sets the tone of the story, and introduces the character’s mood and attitude. Characters interact with their settings and in doing so the setting portrays growth and theme.

The reader doesn’t need to just visualize setting, they need to immerse in it. The writer needs to use all the sensing tools: smells, sounds, textures. And which details the writer uses sets the tone. Does the character notice the smell of lavender flowers or the rotten cat carcass?

The perfect place to find props for your characters to interact with is in the setting. These props not only give your characters something to do during dialogue, but can deepen that dialogue with symbolism.

Setting can be used to trip up your characters’ actions. Do they keep stepping on the creaky stair sneaking around the house? Does the smell of waffles awake them early in the morning? Sometimes the setting seems to take on a life of its own through personification such as: the snow swaddled the earth or the sun glared down.

Most important, characters should interact with the setting. Do they spit, liter, or kick up the grass? Or do they pick up trash and prune? The reader should know how the character feels about it too. Is your city bright lights and magic or a dirty, grimy sewer hole?

To show growth or introduce theme, a main character should revisit a setting to give the reader the initial feelings toward it and then the character’s later emotions.

Some would argue that setting is a character itself, and that is absolutely true in one of my favorite stories, “The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein. The tree is a character and the setting and the story is a short, wonderful example of a 3 dimensional backdrop.

In the beginning the boy loves the tree as it is and wants to be with it always. Then as the boy gets older, he disregards the tree unless he gets something in return (branches for a house, apples to sell, a boat from her trunk), and finally he realizes at the end of life those things were worthless, he needs just the love of the tree and a place to sit.

Helpful References:

Kole, Mary. Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult

and middle grade readers. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2012.

Now Write! Mysteries. Eds. Sherry Ellis & Laurie Lamson. New York: Penguin, 2011.


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2 Responses to “3 Dimensional Settings: Living, Breathing Backdrops”

  1. Jessica,
    I enjoyed your article about the setting of the story. When I read any story I love to be carried away into the character’s life, the setting plays such an important role into my being able to do that. I want to see what they see, touch what they touch, and smell what they smell.

    • Jessica Toman Jessica Toman says:

      Thank you, Sheree. Yes, I agree. I think smell transports me as a reader the most. Whenever i react to a a smell around me, i try to describe it and write it down in a notebook for future reference.

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