In spooky stories, setting certainly cannot be generic. It’s the place that often makes the story spooky. A haunted house. A dark forest. A dank basement. A graveyard. Of course, “normal,” everyday places can be spooky as well—depending on what’s happening and how well you use the setting. But, if you can’t convey the spookiness (or any other aspect), then even inherently scary places will come off generic, too. So I wanted to share a few tips of conveying and using the setting in your stories.
- Know your world. Build a complete one in your head. Know what things look like, where they are, what they sound like, what they smell like, etc. Otherwise, you can’t portray setting convincingly on paper.
- Only share a bits and pieces of the world, though. Think of the world/setting of your story as an iceberg. You need to know the whole thing, but you’re only going to show the reader the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
- Show the setting through your POV character’s eyes. Imagine you’ve put VR goggles on your POV character. What does he or she notice? (BTW, I think the real trick in writing well is striving to keep your reader connected to the story and the world through your POV character’s eyes. Little things like POV slips or lack of setting, for instance, distance the reader from the story.)
- Select really concrete details to help your reader visualize the setting. Don’t just say the door opened. The oaken slab creaked open.
- Don’t drop big blocks of exposition to explain setting (or the world). You can’t totally avoid exposition, but huge blocks of it will knock your reader right out of those VR goggles.
- Do sprinkle clues about the setting and world throughout the action and dialogue. (Not in the dialogue, though. Interweave very brief setting descriptions or directions between what characters say.)
- Establish the setting every time you open or close a scene—and whenever you change location within a scene. You don’t need to spell out where the characters are in the first sentence but do give the reader some hints within the first few sentences.
- Don’t forget all the senses. But don’t overdo it—or under do it. Think about what the POV character would notice.
- Use setting to reflect the mood of the character. If the POV character is scared, for instance, this is going to color how she sees the world around her. Plus you can convey that fear (or joy or sadness) through how you describe the setting.
- Use setting to show the passage of time.
- Use setting to foreshadow events.
- Use setting to ….
I could go on about setting, but you get the idea. If you want to know more about uses of setting, look into Eudora Welty’s “Place in Fiction.” She felt setting was an underappreciated tool in our writer’s toolkit.
BTW, I did a session on creating a sense of place in fiction at the Roanoke Regional Writers’ Conference this year. I talked about setting and about to imbue it with a particular sense of place. See the first entry under Fiction on my For Writers’ page.
Happy reading–and spooky writing!