How to Write Setting and Backstories?
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
Action. Hook them with action and build the tension toward more action.
What Makes a Good Hook?
Action. Danger. Injury.
Don’t start your novel by having your character wake up, sit, stand, look. Start by having them do something. Make your readers ask questions.
Alice woke up to a blaring alarm.
Boring. This tells you nothing other than Alice wakes up to an alarm, probably every morning. There are no lingering questions for your reader to wonder about and keep them reading.
The alarm blared its incessant beeps. Alice groaned, opened one eye, and slapped her hand down on her alarm three times before she hit the snooze button.
Less boring, as it gives the impression of action, without real action. Your readers know Alice likes to sleep in, hates getting up, or needs more sleep, but there is no real question as to what is going on.
Alice bolted upright in bed, ran to the doorframe, and braced herself as her whole apartment shook with the force of a small earthquake.
Yes! The story starts with action. It’s exciting and your reader is left wondering why her apartment is shaking. Is it a real earthquake? Will Alice survive? How? Your reader assumes Alice must have lived through an earthquake before or safety precautions have been ingrained in her as she knows to stand in the doorway.
How Do I Incorporate Setting into My Novel?
Well, using the above example, we don’t know much, yet. But we know Alice lives in an apartment. Her bedroom is big enough to have room for her to have room to run to the door, and we know her apartment isn’t a loft because her bedroom has a door. All displayed with one sentence.
Let’s continue with the scene to see how we can add in more setting and backstory without becoming boring.
She took a few steadying breaths and turned her head toward her window. The L-train was speeding past not more than thirty feet from the vibrating glass. Her eyes narrowed as she concentrated on her alarm clock. Three AM. Son of a— She hung her head and headed toward the kitchen.
Growing up in Eureka, California, she lived through a few earthquakes and many tremors, but she swore the L-train was worse. Why Rem City couldn’t make their trains quieter was beyond her. With how expensive it was to live there and all the money being pumped in, she thought it should have the highest tech available.
In her tiny galley kitchen, she flipped on the 10-cup coffee maker she’d bought last week. Rubbing the back of her neck with one hand, she groped for cabinet handle and pulled out her favorite mug with the other. She chuckled at the powder blue paint covering the cabinet door. It certainly wasn’t an attractive color. When landlord showed her the place, she figured he had used left over paint from a nursery.
Her phone beeped, and she looked at the screen.
Jennifer: You up?
“Of course, I’m up.” She unlocked her phone and messaged back a simple ‘Yes’.
Jennifer: Can I come up?
Alice typed, If you want to climb five flights of stairs.
From this example, the reader knows Alice doesn’t have a lot of money. She’s living in a poor area of a rich city. She came from Eureka, which could be an indicator she has discovered something or will discover something (irony). Her apartment is on the smaller, cheaper side. She doesn’t think much about her landlord. She probably moved a week ago and has already made a friend in the building. The building has at least 5 floors, and she is living on the fifth.
In this scene, Alice does wake up, but it is with action. The setting is described through her actions and is kept to a minimum. There will be time later to give more information on the layout, the bathroom, the living room, and how and why she moved.
Each bit of backstory and setting should be interspersed with some type of activity. Using this technique will help you avoid the dreaded ‘info dump.’
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