In addition to inviting people into a place (and time) you've created and making them comfortable, the setting can contribute to the overall tone of the story and situate readers in a genre. Perhaps most important, it situates the characters, reflecting (and sometimes creating) the challenges they face, providing contrast, and heightening tension.
Of course, for science fiction, fantasy, and horror, the setting can be essential to what the story is about. Writers working in those genres frequently need to build their worlds in great detail and set up the rules in clear ways so what happens makes sense. In fact, I've advocated using some of the techniques of speculative fiction worldbuilding for contemporary, mimetic fiction.
The bottom line is setting has value and the detail with which you plan and present it will depend on the genre, the readers' needs, and the purposes you have in you scenes (and the overall novel). So please keep that in mind as you look through these 20 questions to explore your fictional world. Some will surely be more valuable than others, but I hope a least a few will inspire new ideas for you.
- Are your readers oriented in space? Does they have the clues they need to imagine the room or landscape in which the action takes place? This includes the size of the space (open? claustrophobic?), the people present, and the significant objects (certainly, any that will be put to use, but also those that contribute to tone)?
- Are your readers oriented in time? If it's a different era, are clues to this clear or is is made explicit? If it is relevant, is the time of day obvious? Are their clues to what season it is? If time has passed since the last scene or if this is a flashforward or flashback, do readers know this from the first paragraphs?
- Is the weather accounted for in some way?
- Do the senses help immerse readers in the scene? Does this go beyond sight and dialogue to include ambient sound, touch, taste, heat, and humidity? Is the setting comfortable? Or uncomfortable in some way?
- Is the setting experienced through a point of view character, with attention to what the character would know and notice?
- Does the environment include threats (weapons? cliffs?), disturbing elements (foul smells, dirt, dead bodies, creaking floorboards), or attractors (beautiful scenery, pleasant smells, a banquet, sexy people)?
- Is gravity relevant? Is the floor tilted or slippery? Is the earth quaking? Is there a thirty-story drop just outside the window?
- What emotions does the setting evoke in the viewpoint character? How do these change throughout the scene?
- Does the setting trigger phobias for the point-of-view (POV) character? Or does it prompt memories?
- How is the setting assessed by the character? How does it figure into his or her strategy and attainment of goals?
- If this scene revisits an setting shown earlier, how has it changed? How is it different or more meaningful for the viewpoint character?
- Does irony play a role? Do readers know things about the setting that the viewpoint character does not?
- Are there any clues planted in the setting that will pay off later on in the story? Does what is described set up and justify answers, endings, surprises, and revelation of secrets?
- Within the way the POV character presents the scene (either by first-person narration or the third-person limited perspective), are their indications of who the character is on a deeper level?
- Without distracting readers from the story, is the scene appropriately entertaining and interesting? Does it provide information, paint pictures, and invite further investigation?
- Are the elements of the setting the best choices to create conflict, expose the protagonist, heighten tension, and set the mood?
- Does the setting align with the theme and help to build the story?
- Have you, as the writer, been selective? Including all elements that are essential to the scene and the larger story? Eliminating that which is not essential?
- Does the setting have its own history? Its own future?
- Are any of the elements symbolic? Do they add to the story's effectiveness at an unconscious level, allude to myths, or provide keys to deeper interpretations?
Next time, I'll provide 20 questions on the protagonists goals.