I don't pick and choose subjects or settings; they pick and choose me. —Vikram Seth

Settings play a vital role in any story. They aren’t simply locations where things happen; they are opportunities. Any location can be a secret weapon to underscore themes, set the mood, or reinforce emotions in the reader. Here are some tips to realize your settings' full potential.

Make Your Themes Pop

What does a large body of water, a tree, or a mountain mean to readers? If you’re interested in exploring certain thematic ideas in your novel, a setting is a great place to represent and echo them. My favorite book on common symbols is called The Book of Symbols, and it offers common archetypical images used across the globe.

Make Something Happen

In my plotting classes, I often ask writers to make a quick list of things that can be found in their main setting and then a list of things that might happen that could make things better or worse for the main character. For example, if your setting is an abandoned amusement park—what could be found there? Perhaps a rickety old roller-coaster, an old popcorn machine, a moldering merry-go-round, a spooky hall of mirrors, and a tunnel of love. Once you have this list, it’s suddenly much easier to come up with things that might happen.

Set The Mood

Setting is the main way that writers convey the mood of a scene, and that mood can (and will) change from scene to scene. In the Lord of the Rings, Hobbitton has a very particular mood, as does Mordor, as does Rivendell. Is your scene exciting? Frightening? Calm? Use as many of your senses as you can to evoke the corresponding emotions in the reader. Describe not only what things look like, but how they smell, how things feel, and what sounds are present.

Reflect The Character

Sometimes, a setting can be a stand-in for a character’s emotional state. A storm, steady rain, fog, or clearing skies can echo the main character’s feelings, reinforcing them in the reader’s mind.

Show Off Sophisticated Writing

Simile, metaphor, and personification can bring a setting alive (yes, bad pun INTENTIONAL) in the reader’s mind. A setting often plays a role in the action, almost functioning as a character, so it makes sense to treat it as such. A landscape can have a personality that is cranky, changeable, patient, or threatening. If you treat it like as another character, you’ll increase the reader’s emotional investment.  

From Oz to Wuthering Heights, settings can make things happen, echo or heighten emotions, or serve as a character. Don’t just treat them as background; make sure you explore them and all they have to offer.