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One piece of feedback that I got on a story I wrote is that my settings feel irrelevant, or that the entire book could have been a phone call. I am not sure how to go about fixing this. The characters, for example, are in an office, or a restaurant, or a different office at various times throughout the story ― but any of these places are interchangeable as my story currently stands.

How can I tie the scenes and dialogue in my story into where the characters are? Are there techniques that I could use to mention the setting in relation to things that the character say or do, or to make the settings matter more?

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I've seen this feedback to a bunch of folks lately. That's got me thinking.

Here's a few things to consider.

  1. Don't describe setting bits that don't matter.

  2. Describe setting through character action.

Using these two pieces, imagine the following options (neither is very good; just mock-ups):

The office was roughly square in shape, with wallpaper that looked to be from the 1970s plastered on its walls--velvet roses in a shade of yellow that had surely never occurred in nature. The desk, on the other hand, was sleek steel, and pushed against the side wall, and oddly, appeared to serve only as a place to store papers. The center of the office was dominated by a fake putting green, the kind you could order from the comfort of 30,000 feet from a Sharper Image catalog. No windows at all.

OK. You can picture the office But none of it is relevant to your story. So it serves no purpose. There might be a teeny bit of character development in it, based on the commentary about golf, but since there are no actual characters in sight that hardly matters. It's like a blueprint--and that's the problem with it. Make the setting matter to the character we're following and it's better for story (although it would be worse for a contractor, heh):

Joe strode into the boss's office and nearly tripped over a nine iron on the floor. He picked it up and leaned it against the wall just past the mock putting green. Disposable income, he thought, must be nice.

Hank--Mr. O'Malley, Joe corrected himself--was leaning against his desk, which had been pushed to the side of the room. The desk's knee cubby was up against the wall; the guy really liked his golf it seemed. Situated as it was, the desk served as nothing except an extra place to store old papers. No, strike that, the only place to store papers; there wasn't a file cabinet in sight. Or a single chair. No windows for that matter, and Joe looked around wondering where he was supposed to sit without even a windowsill as a possible option, or if he was supposed to just stand there, in the middle of the room, like a school boy waiting to be disciplined. He considered leaning against the wall, but the outdated velvet wallpaper put him off the idea.

Make the setting a source of props for your character and it becomes interesting.

In a restaurant, you have tons of props. Things to throw, to chew, to be be disgusted by, people moving about, etc. Points of commonality to imply camaraderie. "What are you drinking? Scotch? I'll have the same." And so on.

  1. best to use only the setting details that the character interacts with or notices in some way. Over time, the character can notice new things--like how the boss keeps a picture face-down on his desk and never, ever faces it up, and it starts to become a point of curiosity for Joe, for example.

  2. Provide enough details that a character is not a floating head, but not so many we become distracted. A little goes a long way. There are questions on the SE to address how many details are useful.

Answer: If your character is interacting with the setting, then the setting feels relevant.

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settings feel irrelevant

The characters, for example, are in an office, or a restaurant, or a different office at various times throughout the story ― but any of these places are interchangeable

If the places are interchangeable, they are definitely irrelevant.

Ask yourself why the characters are in that place. How does being there affect the story? If a character decides to confront their partner, why do it in a restaurant and not at home? How do the people around react and how does that reaction affect the reactions of the characters?

Perhaps Joe is under pressure at work - the scene at the office must then show that same pressure - and he doesn't feel like going out at all. But Jane insisted. It's all that happens in his life: being bossed around by his boss, by his managers, by his colleagues even, and now his wife! And when she says she's booked a hotel in Hawaii for their vacation, he blows. He hadn't meant to and when he's finished telling her he will not put up with her bitchy demands and making decisions behind his back, he notices how everyone in the room is looking at them. Then Jane mumbles that he had mentioned he wanted to go to Hawaii... she had only meant to surprise him... Now he feels aghast, out of control and self-humilliated.

In this example the office is essential to show the terrible pressure he suffers at work, and the scene at the restaurant is essential to make him feel public humilliation.

the entire book could have been a phone call

This might mean you should try writing a theatre play or a film script. I'm not joking. Some people have great ideas and great dialogues but just don't get on with narration.

But if you want to write narrative texts, then I suggest that you focus on the characters' feelings, thoughts and perceptions.

Try an exercise: rewrite a scene from the POV of a character and make sure to write down every gesture they make. If they pick up something from the table, mention it, whether it's to say it's a black fountain pen or a short nibbled pencil. Make sure the object has a one to three-word description that matters (ie., gives depth - now we know the character has a nervous tick of biting pencils). Write down the characters every thought and feeling about his actions, words, and what the others are doing and saying.

Obviously, the exercise is asking you to go overboard. But once you've rewritten the scene, you can go back and delete what doesn't really matter. In the meantime, you had the chance to feel how the world the character is acting in affects their mind.

[How] to make the settings matter more?

In short: they must affect the characters' thoughts and actions.

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DPT and Sara Costa have provided great points. (Sara beat me by 4 minutes!) Having the characters interact with the setting is a way to make it matter for the scene.

Most of the time when I see this addressed in writing craft books or online by authors, the solution is stated as making the setting a character.

In practical terms, one way to make the setting important is to give the characters a reason to be in that setting, when it makes sense to do so. For example, if they meet in a diner because it's where they used to hang out with their friends, then the setting is important to the characters, their history, and their development. Or maybe they met there, and so it carries significance that way to them. But the gist is, make the setting significant to the characters somehow.

But it's not always possible to have the setting be significant to the characters prior to the scene. The other side of that is making it significant by its menace, or what it's representing to the character(s). An old house is significant to the young characters who believe it's haunted and are afraid of it. The woods are familiar to the townsfolk in the daylight, but ominous and threatening and strangely UNfamiliar after sundown. That sort of thing.

You could also write the scene so that there's no way it could have unfolded without being there. An exaggerated example is the ancient burial ground trope, where it's significant because it's a place of magic and mystery. Reference Stephen King's Pet Sematary for a great example of this trick, and don't forget The Dark Tower cycle; that tower represents a significant location throughout the series and in the "Kingverse" in general.

If the setting is important to the general world of the story, or to its characters personally (if not everyone in that fictitious world), then it will have a lot of weight.

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@DPT's answer is great (+1), but let me add one more element to it: it's not enough that your characters interact with the setting. There needs to be a reason why your characters are there in the first place, the setting needs to affect the story.

Your characters are in an office. Why? How does it affect the story that they are in the office rather than talking on the phone? Surely there's more to it than the fact one of them can chew on a pen? Is their particular workplace a part of the story? Do they need to be aware of coworkers? Does something happen there that can only happen in an office? And so on.

Consider how locations can enhance your story, what each particular location can give it. If there's nothing, you might as well have the whole story happen in one place.

As an example, in a short story I wrote recently, I needed a meeting between two characters. At first, it could happen anywhere - the important thing was what they said to each other. I wanted a location with a historic significance, because tradition was one theme I explored in the story. I decided on a church, because that accentuated my MC's religious devotion - a character trait important to who he is. Then I went and picked the particular church that was tied to the patron saint of what my story was about. Then I had the characters interact with the setting. In essence, I repeatedly asked myself what setting would give my story most.

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+1 DPT, yes your characters should be interacting with the setting.

If the "entire thing could have been a phone call", I'd say you have a problem with the dialogue, and the character emotions.

Dialogue itself should be influenced by the setting, and vice versa. Intimate dialogue is seldom exchanged in a loud restaurant, some of it isn't appropriate for a restaurant at all. You make it so the setting influences what can be said, and what characters want to communicate but can't, or can only do surreptitiously. A business meeting is not the place to declare undying love. A bedroom might be.

Likewise, depending upon what is being exchanged, you should devise your setting to, in some way, resonate with the emotions of the moment.

A failure to do that may be a failure of the dialogue, if it is monotoned, always the same emotions, then so is your setting, making both forgettable. People should be communicating for a reason, and dialogue is a form of action, there should be more than an exchange of information, there should be conflict (disagreement, questions, disbelief, confusion demanding an explanation) and emotions or feelings involved. Excitement at learning something, setbacks, wonder at revelations, vulnerability. Anger, disappointment, grief, fear of what might happen. You need to imagine how people FEEL about what they are hearing, they should be feeling something besides "Okay," or "Understood."

If your characters do not have feelings, then your settings cannot resonate with and emphasize those feelings, or create dissonance and clash with those feelings. (Clashes can work; e.g. sitting in a comedy club full of laughing people, and finding out on your phone your father was just killed in a car crash.)

Sometimes settings can influence or steer the conversation. For example, take two partners talking business coming back from lunch. But I want to change the topic to something more personal, to indicate their friendship. So first, a setting conducive to a friendly conversation. A shortcut through the city park. Second, I let their business conversation comes to a natural (comfortable) end. They walk for a minute in their own thoughts, then one of them (Mike) sees a retiree flying a two-string stunt kite in the park.

Mike gestures toward the kite flier. "That's what I want to do. Scrap this whole damn deal, and make myself a kite."

John giggled. "Go fly a kite? Is that a joke? 'Cause I don't get it."

"No joke, I love fuckin' kites, and I haven't flown one in ten years because of this stupid job."

"After We get this deal done, then ..." John spoke while laughing, "you can go fly a fuckin' kite!"

"Right, that's gonna happen," Mike said. Then after a pause, "They have competitions, you know. Make patterns with your kite, or they have battles to cut a string. It's like a sport."

"Uh huh. Like chess is a sport?"

Mike's head was turned right to watch the kite flyer, but they'd passed him. He faced forward, shook his head, smiling. "Fuck off."

John laughed.

If none of your settings actually matter, then you don't have enough variety of emotions in the types of conversations you have. If I want these two characters to have an argument, I'd likely put them in an irritating setting, someplace unpleasant that neither of them want to be. Not a park, maybe someplace noisy, or at least uncomfortable. Too hot, or too cold. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, perhaps. And I will craft the story so it seems natural they end up there, but I want the setting to add to the stress they are feeling by having an argument.

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