The setting of a novel is a balance between being too stark and being overdone like the classics that start off with pages of setting before getting to the plot.
It’s best to give description of time and place in moderation without drawing too much attention to the words. You don’t want to describe every piece of clothing on your character, talk about a building from the sidewalk to the roof or detail a town with a precise map of streets with rows of businesses, stores and houses.
Instead, select a few representative details of the character’s surroundings to add color and dimension to her external world. Give enough of a description to establish historical period, location and mood.
Establishing the setting also is a way to draw out what is happening in the character’s internal world. Ask what her impressions are of the colors, textures, sounds, flavors and odors of the things within her environment. What do these sense impressions make her feel and think?
Ask how she relates to the setting? Is she distant, or too hurried to pay attention, or is she absorbed, noticing many of the details? The relationship she has with the setting, both physically and internally, grounds her in the plot of the story. Here are a few questions to ask about that relationship:
- How does her external world relate to her internal world? What are her thoughts, feelings, beliefs, fears, memories and other psychological factors? And what is it in her external world that she notices outside her body?
- Is she limited by or at odds with her environment? Or does she love where she lives, including her city or town and her home? Does she love where she works or goes to school? Where she shops, eats out, has fun?
- How does her environment influence her identity and behavior? Does she act in ways or see herself differently because of where she lives? Is she a city girl stuck in a rural town because that’s where her husband got a job? Or does she need to live in a lush landscape but is stuck in a lease or with a mortgage?
Lastly, remember to show, don’t tell as you describe the setting and the character’s reactions to it to let your reader fully experience the time and place of your created world.