A simple trick to make your setting feel essential to the story
Cancun is known for its clear turquoise water, white sandy beaches, lush rainforests, and Mexican culture.
It is a beautiful backdrop for a wedding.
For my dear friend's wedding last month, we stayed at an all-inclusive resort with a long crystal lap pool, cabana shades fluttering in the wind, a massive 16-story high-rise constructed in a modern architectural style, and a large wooden palapa stretched out above the turquoise ocean. Pool-side cocktail servers bustled about with trays crammed with frozen margaritas and pina coladas, as gleeful, sunburnt tourists splashed about in the pool. Kids squealed with delight from the mini water park.
Except one thing no one prepared for as they planned and plotted the wedding was the wind.
I’m talking 25mph wind, strong enough to knock down wine glasses and push umbrellas into the pool.
When I go home and tell friends and family about this wedding, I cannot leave the wind out of it.
Ever try to walk down a football-field-length wooden dock in heels and a high-slitted dress while the wind is blowing so hard it’s kicking both sand and water into your eyes? And your dress is blowing open and about to give the entire wedding a peep show. Not to mention hours spent doing hair and makeup are immediately put in jeopardy, and a bouquet that’s losing flower petals before we even make it down the aisle. The bride herself, in her long, full dress is at risk of getting blown off the dock before she even sees the groom.
At the reception, dresses are billowing Marilyn Monroe-style, glasses are knocked and spilled, and every so often there’s a loud crash from something sliding off a table or the partitions getting swept down.
In a nutshell: the setting, for better or worse, is an absolutely essential piece of a story.
So how do you weave setting (or world-building details) into your manuscript in a seamless way?
It’s actually fairly straightforward: you must have your characters interact with it, and be specific in your details.
When I was in grad school, I heard a piece of advice that has never left me: Use all the furniture in the room.
Her example, which I love, was of a scene in which a couple is fighting. She had us do an exercise of listing the pieces of furniture that might be in any room in a house. We’re talking lamps, knick-knacks, books, chairs, etc. She said, “Well what if instead of having a character just yell at another, telling him how angry she was, she picked up a chair and threw it at him.”
Use all the furniture in the room.
The other thing that brings setting to life is specificity. Concrete, specific nouns that show what a place is like, using the five senses.
Which is stronger: “Food wafted through the marketplace,” or “Roasted chicken spiced with garlic and cumin wafted through the marketplace.” Which can you actually imagine? Which conjures up an image in your mind?
The trick, however, isn’t just to give lengthy info-dumps describing the world in great detail. It’s in the marriage of the two methods of bringing your setting to life: specific detail plus a character’s interactions.
A well-crafted setting, or world, instantly makes your novel richer. So have your character interact with it and be specific in your details.