We all have places we know and love. They aren’t rooms with amazing views, patios with comfortable couches, or castles in the middle of a forest. They’re rooms with happy memories, patios where we fell in love, castles where a hero grew up. Cool views, couches, and surroundings make a setting fun to describe, but what makes a setting really great is nostalgia – a sense of the familiar combined with vivid and emotional memories.
‘Your setting needs to mean something to the character for it to mean something to us.’ We’ve all heard some version of that incredibly important advice, but what I’m talking about is something a little different. This post is about an often overlooked – and maybe smaller – part of creating a great setting. It’s about the simple fact that nostalgia in the reader can be created in the time it takes them to finish a book. Not only do we want the setting to mean something to our hero, we want it to mean something to our reader.
Welcome to the second post of a five part series on simple (but maybe not so obvious) tips to make our stories better. Today’s topic is Setting Familiarity.
Readers’ feelings of affection for settings come from balancing two things.
How ‘cool’ a setting is only gets us halfway there. Just reading a paragraph telling us that a mansion is huge and beautiful and set in the side of an icy mountain makes us ‘think’ the setting is cool, not ‘feel’ or ‘know’ the setting is cool. But if we read that description in the first few chapters, then return to the mansion 50 pages later for a big turning point in a characters life, and again for a big turning point in the plot, we can leave the mansion for the rest of the book and when it turns out that the climax of the story takes place at the mansion you won’t even have to spend a paragraph describing it – it’ll already mean something to us. We’re familiar with it. We have an image of it in our mind more vivid than anything an author’s description can conjure up. And even better, we have memories there (our own memories, not our character’s).
Setting familiarity is the second half of making your setting powerful, but it doesn’t mean that the entire book should take place in one room. It’s just something to keep in mind where applicable.
Think about all the school stories you’ve read and think about how well you got to know the setting, how comfortable it made you, how you cared about it almost as much as you cared about some of the characters. Maybe you even wished you could be there yourself.
A clear example of falling in love with a setting is Harry Potter. We all wanted to go to Hogwarts after finishing the very first book, not just because it was important to Harry, but because it was important to us. The seventh book of the series had a lot of action, our favorite characters, and answers to a ton of mysteries. But a large part of it wasn’t set at Hogwarts, and because of that there was a big part of the book that was missing.
This may work for some books more than others, but even if you’re writing a jet-setting thriller you might be able to use it to your advantage. Keep it in mind. Even if you only return somewhere once, a bit of nostalgia is a powerful thing.