Fiction readers want their curiosity aroused and they want to be drawn into a convincing and evocative world. As a writer, you need to find a successful balance between the details necessary to create an authentic experience for the reader and elements that prompt the kinds of questions they are eager to have satisfied.
Engaging setting starts with strong description. Focus on specific details that define the essence of the place and invite the reader to imagine it fully. Don’t compartmentalize setting. Instead, lash description of place closely to the action. In Dan Chaon’s short story “Passengers, Remain Calm” in his collection Among the Missing, Hollis takes his young nephew to a carnival. The story opens with a scene where Hollis and his nephew witness a snake attempting to eat a young girl; her hand and forearm are in the reptile’s throat. Hollis is curious, but wonders whether his nephew should be watching. The reader is already drawn into the story by the unsettling action and the glimpse of the relationship between uncle and nephew when Chaon offers this description of the place:
This is the town’s yearly carnival, which, along with the Reptile Petting Zoo, features the usual menagerie—a hay ride, a carousel, a Ferris wheel, a few scary rides, like the Octopus and the Hammerhead. There are a series of game booth, at which children gamble for stuffed animals and plastic trinkets. At two in the afternoon, there is a pet show; at five, there is a raffle for a brand-new Kawasaki motorcycle; at dusk, there will be fireworks. Hollis’s nephew is deeply engrossed, running purposefully from exhibit to exhibit, and Hollis follows thoughtfully, still occupied with the image of the girl and the snake, which he plans to write about in his journal.
After the urgency of the scene with the snake, the details of setting allow for a shift in intensity. That description is followed closely by the characters’ interactions with the setting: Hollis trailing his nephew as he makes his way from one carnival delight to the next. The reader experiences the setting as the character does and this prompts questions about what will happen next. Chaon also uses this description to prepare the reader for what comes later; the Kawasaki motorcycle is important in the end scene.
Sometimes setting can be used to illuminate other elements, like action, dialogue or a character’s state of mind. This appears later in Chaon’s story:
They sit for a time, near the carousel, watching people pass, children awash in the urgency of having fun, parents following behind with indulgent, sleepwalking expressions. He knows that they cannot sense the dull panic that has begun to throb around him, beating time to the distant churn of the calliope.
The reader is engaged in the character’s struggle—that “dull
panic”—and at the same time is aware of his surroundings.
When setting commingles with the other elements of story it
becomes a natural part of the unfolding action and the character’s experience.
It becomes part of the intrigue that readers seek. And it also works toward
authenticity. Humans are always receiving sensory input from their surroundings
and interacting with the spaces they inhabit. The same should be true for your