DON'T FUCKING NEVER FORGET TO TELL US WHERE YOUR SHIT IS HAPPENING.
This rant is brought to you by my doing more editing and also reading more writing submissions on @ellowrites and lately setting some books aside because, well, they totally failed to give me the feeling that the story is real. I mean, I know it's a lie but I want to be fooled into thinking that it's real, and if I don't get the feeling about where the story is happening, like in an actual real place, geographically real or imagined on some planet but that still feels real enough, I don't believe a word the writer is saying and toss the book out the window.
I'm guilty of this too, don't think you're alone. Here are some tricks I use. See if you can steal some for yourself and maybe share some of yours in the comments for all of us to steal too.
1. Imagine you're describing a movie.
This is the easiest trick I found to fool myself into TO NOT BLOODY FORGET ABOUT THE SETTING. When I write I think about how I would film this or that scene. Like, if I were to watch it on the screen, what will the audience actually see? A closeup? A wide shot? And do we see it from the top or from the side? Do we zoom in or do we pan? Stuff like that. Once you know, it's easy. If it's a closeup, you can go ahead and describe the hair in the nose, all yucky and sticking out, and BOOM, you got people to look at your character real close. If it's a wide shot, then mention streetlights and maybe some light rain, or maybe some steam coming up from manholes, and then you might even mention the smell and that's enough, you only really need a sentence or two, and we will believe you. This is especially true when we write long pages of dialogue. Break it up with stuff that happens around the talking people, just like a DP would do in a well-shot movie SO WE WON'T GET BORED.
2. Think about all five senses.
I've written a detailed post about them bastards right here, if you want to dive deeper into this. But the general idea is to always think of all five of them and then maybe pick out one or two and focus on them as every new scene unfolds. Again, you only need to mention the most important detail and the rest you can leave to the reader to figure out. But if you mention NOTHING then you're really trying our patience. And if you continue like this for several pages, you're screwed. Your reader will ditch the book and go read something else. So write yourself a note and hang it above your laptop or computer or whatever (that's what I used to do, when I used to forget). When you glance up, you'll see and you'll remember.
3. It's the little things that matter.
I find that in every great book I read—I mean, a book that hits me hard and that I remember for a long time—the focus of the story is on the littlest details that you would otherwise overlook, but because the writer calls your attention to them, you see them and they become real in your head and you believe the story (the lie) and you're hooked, and you remember those little things for a long time afterward. So maybe in one of your drafts try concentrating on little things only. I do it now almost automatically, but I used to have to remind myself. Like little special things that are special to you for some reason, and so they become special to your reader. Like the socks in Lolita, and the balloons in Winnie-the-Pooh, and the tailored suits in Dead Souls, and the missing typewriter keys in Misery, and the cat's smile in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and the Russian words in A Clockwork Orange. I can keep going here forever. These are all very little details that were important to the writers and then ended up being so memorable to the rest of us, they became important to us too. Everyone remembers Hannibal Lecter talk about fava beans, right? There you go. What little things matter to you? Write them all in. Describe them, and we will fall in love with them together with you.
4. Orient us like we're lost.
This is another trick. I think of every scene like a place where my reader gets lost. It's new and nothing is known about it. So if I had to orient you really quickly, what would I do? Well, I would probably right away mention the date and the year, and then what weather it was and then what building it was and what floor, and what people's names and ages and occupations were. And maybe quickly something to indicate some history, like what was happening at that time, big sport news or political news or some special fashion or the manner of speech, something to drop you into that scene like through a time machine. I sort of do it for myself because in the first draft I'm lost too, but then in later drafts I know where I am and I can pick and choose what I want to say to make you feel like you're there.
Those are my four biggest tricks. The main one I use constantly is the movie one. It kind of plays in my head and I try to write down exactly what I see, and that's that. What about you? How do you establish a setting?
SHARE YOUR SECRETS. And maybe you will get a cookie.