Who can ever forget innocent Snow White making her way through the clawing hands of the enchanted forest. The trees came alive, and they were not friendly. Yet it was in this same forest where she met a group of dwarves who would help her. The forest might be seen as Snow White's own darkness or the place within herself she fears. It's here, after all, where she is poisoned and also where she experiences her first kiss. The forest symbolizes death and rebirth and sexual awakening.
What does your setting represent for your hero? Consider your hero's journey. Is she in search of love? How can your setting reflect her fears and desires in the opening scenes? Is it summer where the air is dry? Does she live by the sea, but she is afraid to enter its waters? Is your hero struggling to come out? Must he burn away judgment in order to be accepted? Think a forest fire or volcanic eruption.
Playing with our setting and treating it like a character provides us the opportunity to push our plot forward in dramatic ways.
A few weeks ago, I offered an exercise: sketch your main character as a landscape (the shy teen might look like an isolated desert town); sketch a character that looks like your setting (a lush green meadow might look like a happy carefree little girl, sun-kissed cheeks, clear open eyes).
How does your setting change as your character transforms? As the shy teen opens to his world, does the weather shift from hot and oppressive to cool; does your hero suddenly notice the beauty in the sidewalk weeds? After your innocent girl meets a group of bullies on the way home from school, does a thunderstorm suddenly break out?
Bring your setting alive. It's not a still painting. It is a living, breathing landscape that embraces your characters in the folds of its mountains or casts them aside at its cliff's edge.
Finally, consider using human qualities to highlight action or raise tension:
The brutal sun beats down on our backs.
I float upon the sea, wrapped in its motherly embrace.
The wind reaches for her hair, he cannot find her. She'll make sure of it. As she dodges around the corner, its curb rises up to trip her. The cold, unforgiving pavement slaps her face, absorbs her blood into its gray skin.
How will you bring your setting to life? Share your favorite settings from books you love - or even from one of your own.