Places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. —Carmen Maria Machado

The Thing About Settings

Often, people ask me why I don’t have a “Settings” tab in Bookflow’s projects structure. The answer is simple—settings are found under Characters+, because that’s what they are. Settings are places, but they’re places that the characters have a relationship with and an emotional response to. Consider the island of Neverland. It’s a physical place, full of beauty and danger. It has a personality; it holds secrets. Things happen because of the island. In fact, the island poses the novel’s most fundamental question: Will you, or won’t you, grow up?

The Brain Science Shortcut

Readers have emotional responses to settings. Thanks to brain science, intensely descriptive writing transforms reading into something akin to actual experience. But the description has to be clear and strong. For example, if you say that someone has rough hands, your brain will only light up in the language center. But if you say that someone has leathery hands, the part of your brain that controls language is activated along with the part of your brain that controls the sense of touch.

The Unconscious Shortcut

Another way to provoke emotion in a reader is to work with their unconscious. Psychologist Carl Jung says that we all hold a personal unconscious that’s based in repressed memory and thought, but also collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is closer to instinct and guides our reaction to images and beliefs that exist across time and cultures.

Consider a foggy landscape, one in which a forest of trees has partially disappeared and the moisture has begun to collect on your eyelashes. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches remark, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air.” Fog represents uncertainty, blurring the lines around objects and making them less distinct. Fog can be used to suggest ghosts or dreams and is often a sign of magic. When a reader encounters a fog in a forest, their unconscious prepares them for something eerie or deeply personal and revelatory.

Skillful use of both sensory details and archetypal settings can motivate a tremendous emotional response from a character and provoke emotions in your reader. That’s why I always suggest fully exploring the settings (both macro and micro) that make up your novel in the Characters+ tab.