Start with three basic sets
Giving your novel a strong sense of place is vital to doing your part to engage the readers without confusing or frustrating them. Setting is a big part of this (though not the whole enchilada — there is also social context and historic period), and I often find writing students and consulting clients erring on one of two extremes.
Either: Every scene is set in a different, elaborately-described place from the last. This leads to confusion (and possibly exhaustion and impatience) for the reader, because they have no sense of what they need to actually pay attention to for later and what’s just…there. Are the details of that forest in chapter 2 important? Will I ever be back in this castle again? Is there a reason for this character to be in this particular room versus the one she was in the last time I saw her? Who knows!
Or: There are few or no clues at all as to where the characters are in a scene. What’s in the room? Are they even in a room? Are there other people in th — ope, yes, there are, someone just materialized, what is happening? This all leads to the dreaded “brains in jars” syndrome. That is, characters are only their thoughts and words, with no grounding in the space-time continuum. No one seems to be in a place, in a body, at a time of day.
Everything aspect of writing a novel comes with its difficulties, and there are a lot of moving pieces to manage and deploy in the right balance. When you’re a newer writer, especially, there’s something to be said for keeping things simple until you have a handle on how to manage the arc and scope of a novel-length work. And whether you tend to overdo settings or underdo them, you can learn something from TV, especially classic sitcoms.
Your basic “live studio audience” sitcoms are performed and filmed on sets built inside studios vs. on location. This helps keep production expenses in check and helps the viewer feel at home — there’s a reliable and familiar container to hold the story of any given episode. The writers on the show don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every script.
Often, a show will have no more than two or three basic sets that are used episode to episode, and then a few other easily-understood sets (characters’ workplaces, restaurants, streets scenes) are also used regularly but not every episode. For example:
Friends: The girls’ apartment, the guys’ apartment, and Central Perk.
Frasier: Frasier’s apartment, the radio studio, and the coffee shop.
Cheers: Basically it’s all at the bar, though there is the bar area and then Sam’s office or other non public areas of the bar.
King of Queens: Doug and Carrie’s house, Doug’s workplace, Carrie’s workplace.
30 Rock: Liz’s office, the writer’s room, the halls and lobby of 30 Rock.
You get the idea! You can do the same exercise with one-hour procedurals, dramas, and even reality shows.
Now, obviously, a novel is not a sitcom. A novel is not TV or film at all. We aren’t limited by budget or production logistics, and we have the luxury of designing any setting we want to. Elaborate, chic, run down, big, small, scary, real, or fantastical. We can do anything we want with the simple marriage of words and imagination.
But, you’ll do yourself and your readers a big favor by limiting in some way the number of settings you use. You want to build a world that readers can comprehend, follow, and start to feel familiar in so that they’re more invested in what your characters are up to than trying to keep track of where your characters are.
Especially if you’re newer to the craft, thinking in terms of three basic “sets” for your novel can help you keep a handle on it. You can “build” each set once in your notebook or draft and bring your characters there as the story dictates.
In realism, this might look like: home, workplace, and some third location like a park, favorite restaurant, friend’s house, or school. For fantasy, maybe this is a particular chamber in a castle, a part of the forest, and the village pub. In a thriller or procedural, the detective’s (or villain’s) vehicle might be one of the sets along with the station or office and the crime scene or scenes.
For those who tend to overwrite setting, giving yourself a limit or three or four primary locations can help provide needed structure. If you underwrite setting, spending some time building a few places in your notebook and making sure your characters are always clearly in a place not just disembodies thoughts and voices.
Next time you’re watching a favorite show, notice which sets and locations recur episode to episode, and how often (or seldom) one-time settings are used. Notice how the locations interplay with storyline and if and how the settings may even do some of the storytelling work.
For example, when the friends on Friends are at Central Perk, recurring and one-time characters can show up in a way they wouldn’t in the apartments. Procedurals are more likely to have single-use sets as they relate to a given investigation, but you’ll still often see them back at the station, the office, the courtroom, the patrol car.
Comedies will tend to use their familiar interiors and then maybe mix them up with street or public settings as the story requires, but they’ll always wind up back in a familiar place throughout the episode.
Have fun with it and think about three or four settings you can put to good use in your novel without losing control of the story — or the interest of the reader.