I assume you write stuff you want human creatures to read. Yeah? Well, human creatures are sensory. And nearly always location-based. Setting provides essential context that informs your plot, shapes your characters, and enriches readers’ experience of your story.
…on the map if possible. No, seriously. Look it up, pick an address if that’s relevant. Narrow in. What are the coordinates, the exact date and time, what was the temperature and average humidity that day, when did the sun set? If it’s a real place, get to know it as deeply as you can. If it’s imaginary, you should know it even better. (The social systems, the infrastructure, the local flora and fauna, how the laws of physics work there, etc.) You might not end up including any of this in your story, but you should know it.
The gestalt of a place may seem ineffable, but you can convey it with a few well-chosen details. For interiors, consider the shape of the space, the light sources, the air quality, the acoustics, the textures, the objects in that space. How high are the ceilings, is there an echo, can you smell mold, how thick is the carpet, is the feng shui harmonious or like totally malevolent? For exteriors, think about the geographical features, the shape of the land, plants and trees, weather, temperature, angle of the sun, proximity to water, local ley lines…whatever you need to create the right mood.
People (other than your characters) are a critical part of your setting. You don’t have go all Margaret Mead on that shit but you do need to consider the cultural aspects. Think of how Junot Díaz conveyed so much about his New Jersey locale with a little street slang in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Is this place densely populated? How often do your main characters run into people they know? How would a tourist characterize the locals? How do people treat strangers? How flagrantly do they jaywalk? What languages are spoken on the street? How many people are yelling at a given moment?
Choose a setting because it contributes something unique to your story, not because you live there or want to go there or think it would sell books or make a pretty movie.
Having said that: If you’re sufficiently passionate about a particular setting, it’s worth exploring it to see what stories will arise.
A story is about characters in conflict and shouldn’t try to minutely describe every sensory detail. Yes, there is bad showing (see this post on when showing goes wrong).
Most readers don’t enjoy long passages of description. It’s boring and leads to visualization fatigue. Trickle in the pertinent details as they come up naturally. If it doesn’t directly enrich the story, leave it out.
Remember your POV and view the setting through your character’s eyes, not your own. Fish don’t notice they’re in water, and people experience a place differently depending on their maturity level, mood, worldliness, whether they’ve been there before, innate powers of observation…. All the qualities that make them unique make their perspective unique, too.
Where do your primary characters stand in relation to their setting? Are they wholly products of it or are they in opposition to it? In what ways might they transcend it?
Use descriptions and metaphors that hint at, develop, and illuminate your themes, and choose settings that amplify them as well.
Huge thanks to Michelle Su for the gorgeous photographs!