Scrivener Superpowers

How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice

How to Create Setting Sketches (for Windows)

(For the Mac version of this tutorial, click here.)

“If character is the foreground of fiction, setting is the background,” Janet Burroway tells the reader in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. But how do you create engaging settings that enhance your story? And how can Scrivener help you create setting sketches for your particular story?

People (and therefore characters) are a product of their environment, for good or for ill. In order to write compelling stories that draw readers in, you not only have to know your setting intimately, but be able to manipulate that setting to bring out the best and worst in your characters.

A good setting can take on personality traits of its own, and some tend to think of setting as another character.

All settings have to start somewhere. Let’s go over a classic method to help you flesh out your settings early in the process so that they can become a vital part of your story.

What Is a Setting Sketch?

A setting sketch is an outline of a fictional place—what it looks like, smells like, feels like. You can discuss a setting objectively through the lens of your own experiences, or you can take the same setting and examine it through the eyes of a character.

Settings also create atmosphere and tone in your story. Horror stories are great examples of effective setting because they create an atmosphere of fear that is almost palpable; it’s what makes them such gripping stories, whether you’re working with a haunted house, a zombie apocalypse, or a ruined castle.

As with character sketches, I like to start with visuals using Scrivener’s Corkboard.

Character or Setting Sketch—Which Comes First?

In the last chapter, we talked about how character sketches can help you flesh out the characters in your story, so you might be wondering: Which should you work on first, your character sketches or your setting sketches?

Both character and setting sketches are fundamental to the planning phase of the creative writing process, but the order in which you tackle them is your choice.

I’m of the mindset that you can do setting, character, or plot in any order that makes the most sense to you. Play to your own strengths.

Don’t worry too much about what you do first. Over time, you will develop your own process, and adjust these tactics and tools to fit your style.

Using Template Sheets in Scrivener for Setting Sketches

As with character sketches, you’ll want to use the Template Sheets for setting sketches.

template-sheets-folder

Visualize Your Settings

Start by creating a folder called “Settings.” Then open that folder to the Corkboard view and create a notecard for each setting in your story using Template Sheets, the same way we did for character sketches in the last chapter. As a reminder, you can either right click on the folder and go to Add > New From Template and select your setting sketch, or click the arrow next to the Add button in the Toolbar to add new sketches.

If your whole story takes place in one room in one house, you might have only a single card. More likely though, your story takes place in multiple settings.

Try to be as specific as possible. Instead of “New York City,” name your card “The Village” or, even better, “Italian Restaurant in the Village.” The more specific your setting, the more likely it is to come to life.

Once you have all your setting notecards arranged, go find one image that feels like it matches each setting. There can be discrepancies between the details of the photo you choose and the actual setting in your story. The idea isn’t to find a photo that represents your story in every way possible, but to capture the spirit of that particular setting so you have a place to start your sketch.

Here are the setting cards I created for my novel:

all-settings-cropped

If you find it necessary to use more than one photo, you can add extra images inside the Scrivenings view of a particular sketch.

Write About Your Setting

Now for the fun part: open up a setting and start writing.

Here’s a screenshot of what the default Template Sheet for a setting sketch looks like in Scrivener. I’ve filled it out with one of the settings in my novel.

scriv-setting-sketch

Aim for at least 500 words. Any more than that is icing on the cake. Any less than that and you may find yourself coming back to the sketch to flesh it out more as you write. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around.

An Alternative Setting Sketch Template

Here’s an alternative setting sketch template you may use in your writing practice. This is my preferred setting sketch.

alt-setting-sketch

What I like about this version, compared to Scrivener’s default, is that it’s less prescriptive. It leaves room for the imagination to run wild, cuing you with suggestions rather than specific questions. For example, you see in the default sketch above, the label “season”? All I wrote there was “summer.” That wasn’t important to my story, so it was really just a waste of a label. In my sketch, I’ve combined “Weather & Seasons,” as I find that there is a lot of information to mine with both those categories, whereas a season alone isn’t very significant in the stories I want to tell.

You have plenty of room to experiment here, so mix and match until you find what works for you.

Here’s the full text of my setting sketch. Feel free to use or modify it as you see fit:

[photo]

SETTING NAME

Role in Story

This setting in a single sentence.

Related Characters

Character A, Character B, Character C.

Description

Describe your setting in significant detail.

Weather & Season

Windy, rainy, gloomy, sunny, clear, foggy, humid, altitude, storms? Summer, spring, fall, winter?

Sights, Sounds & Smells

Use your senses and go there. Sketch out what aspects of your setting are most important to your character, what they look like, smell like, how the characters feel when they see this place.

Details

Anything else important to remember?

Setting Sketch Checklist

How do you know when your setting sketch is done? That depends on your own unique process. You’re done when you can’t squeeze any more juice out of the setting you’re working on.

Just in case you’re still not sure, here’s a checklist you can run through that may help you out. Consider each of your setting sketches and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What unique atmosphere does this setting evoke?
  2. What important role does this setting play in my story?
  3. Would my story be the same if I changed this setting? Why or why not?
  4. Go through the weather patterns: rain, wind, snow, hot, cold, humid—what about this setting is consistent in each type of weather? What about this setting is inconsistent?
  5. What year is it in this setting? Why does that matter?
  6. How does this setting influence each of my characters?

(Click here for the next chapter in the series.)

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About Matt Herron

Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.

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