USA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham learned to get into and out of trouble at a very early age. When not writing her own fiction Mary teaches writers around the world in live and webinar courses as well as creates Writing Craft books including, A Writer's Guide to Active Setting: How to Enhance Your Fiction with More Descriptive, Dynamic Settings, Writing Active Hooks, and is co-author of Break Into Fiction®.

Writing Active Setting by Mary Buckham

If you're tired of your Setting descriptions being ho-hum and are ready to create a compelling story world, regardless of what you write, or your current level of writing skills, keep reading.

In WRITING ACTIVE SETTING Book 1: Characterization and Sensory Detail you will:

  • Discover the difference between Ordinary Setting that bogs down your story, and Active Setting that empowers your story.
  • See how to spin boring descriptions into engaging prose.
  • Learn to deepen the reader's experience of your story world through sensory details.
  • Note how changing characters' POV can change your setting.
  • Explore ways to maximize the setting possibilities in your story.

This book goes straight to the point, putting theory in plain language, adding examples from authors in a variety of genres, and finishes each section with exercises designed to help you work with your Setting in a way that will excite you. . .and your readers!


The start of every story has three elements: character, setting, problem. Most writers leave out the setting, or they believe that a single word ("barn") will do. USA Today bestseller Mary Buckham's book helps writers take that single word and create an entire universe without slowing the story down. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch



  • "The Active Setting series takes an all too often overlooked technique, and elevates it to a next-level game changer for powerful fiction."

    – Cathy Yardley, author of Rock Your Plot
  • "WRITING ACTIVE SETTING is a powerful combination of fresh insights, practical examples, and how-to advice on the often overlooked but critical element of Setting ... written in a quick-to-read and easy-to-understand style, and packed with useful application exercises."

    – Kelly L. Stone, author of THINKING WRITE: The Secret to Freeing Your Creative Mind
  • "If you're a writer, then Mary Buckham's book, Writing Active Settings, is a must-have tool for your writer's toolkit. Creating settings that are rich and believable is not an easy task, but with this book, I found that each chapter gave me great tips that I could immediately implement in my manuscript."

    – Laurie G. Adams, author of Finding Atticus



Part 1:


Setting is probably one of the most underused tools in a writer's toolbox, but it doesn't have to be.

Settings involve so much more than stringing together a list of adjectives or dumping a chunk of visual clues to orient the reader. Setting can create the world of your story, show characterization, add conflict, slow or speed up your pacing, add or decrease tension, relate a character's back story, thread in emotion, and more. Some authors are known for creating Settings that are so deeply integrated into the scene that when readers step away from reading they still find themselves in the place described on the page.

Think of Setting as the stage which contains your story, and it should be as important as any character, whether you choose to write sparsely or in great detail. The setting orients the readers to the geography, climate, social context, time of the story's events, foreshadowing of unfolding events, architecture, and much more. When handled well, the Setting can also impact the thoughts of your readers and actions of your characters and thus move the story forward.

If not handled well, poor Setting description can thwart or frustrate readers to the point where they want to throw away the story or actually do put your book down and walk away.

Setting can add so much to your story world, or it can add nothing. When creating Active Setting, we're looking to add subtext in your writing, a deeper way for your reader to experience your story. Instead of simply describing a place or thing for the sake of description, we'll look closely at how to maximize what you are showing the reader. You'll learn how to verbally illustrate a place and where to insert this information so the reader will understand the intention of your scenes and be pulled deeper into the story. Specifically in Book 1, we'll look at using Setting to reveal your characters and to add sensory details.

We'll make sure you do not focus your reader on something that isn't pertinent to your story.

Note: The details of your Setting must matter to your story.

Example: you're showing the reader a room in a house. That room and the details in that room should show characterization or conflict or emotion or foreshadowing or be there for a reason instead of simply describing placement of objects in space.

Let's examine Setting in two vital ways: to show Characterization and to add Sensory details. But first an overview of what Setting is and what it can be.


In this book, we'll focus on keeping in mind three key elements in crafting Setting:

(1)You need to create the world of your story.

(2)Each character in your story experiences the story world differently.

(3)Your story world involves more than one sense.

What this means is that your role as a writer is to create the world of your story so that the reader not only sees it but experiences every detail. Regardless of whether you're writing about a famous place that millions have lived in or experienced, your Character's perceptions of that world are what matters in your story. You're not writing about any living room, any small town, any large city; you are writing about a specific living room, a specific small town, a specific large city and why those things matter to your character.

Pull the reader deeper into your story by allowing them to experience the Setting on a deeper level. It can be the difference between standing on a beach facing the Pacific Ocean, feeling the sand beneath your bare toes, inhaling the scent of tangy salt spray, hearing the roar and slam of the waves versus looking at a postcard.

Learning to write Active Setting is as easy as knowing when and where you want to ramp up your Setting details and why.

I've had the privilege to work with thousands of writers in all genres over the years and to see them take the blah or non-existent Setting of their stories and make it work harder. That's my wish for every writer who takes the time to study Active Setting.


Throughout this book we'll be looking at how you can ramp up elements of your story by how you use or do not use your Setting. In this book we'll take an overview of why Setting matters to a story and see examples from published authors showing you in a variety of genres how they maximized Setting in their novels. Setting is more than describing a place.

Note: Active Setting means using your Setting details to work harder and smarter.

First, I want you to focus on what seems like a basic assumption:

Your reader has never been in your world — wherever your world is.

I don't care if it's New York City and most of your readers live in Manhattan; your reader has never been in your world. The Setting and world you'll be painting on the page are more than a travelogue or a list of street names.

Not everything that a character sees, smells, tastes, or touches needs to end up in your final manuscript, but it's a place to start. For example, a POV [point of view of the person whose thoughts, emotions, background, and world view the reader is experiencing the story through] character who is miserable in a school environment will not see or notice the same items as a POV character who finds school a sanctuary and the center of their world.

Think of yourself as the author focusing the reader on what's key about the world Setting of your POV character and then bring that information to life through your word choices, the details, and how you thread these details together.

Remember that the details you choose to share must matter. Do not focus your reader on something that is not pertinent to your story. Why? Because you're wasting an opportunity to make your Setting work harder. Too much narrative, which is what Setting can be in large chunks, slows your pacing.

Example: You're showing the reader a room in a house. That room and the details in that room should show characterization or conflict or emotion or foreshadowing or be there for a reason instead of simply to describe placement of objects in space.

Note: you are not just working with objects in space — you're creating a world.

When we make characters interact with the space they're in, we can make those few words work as more than just descriptors and turn them into ways the reader can get a grasp on the world as the character experiences it.

Poor example: Sue walked into her mother's living room, past the couch and the coffee table to sit down in a chair.

What is the above sentence showing you? Revealing to you? Letting you experience? Not much, it's simply moving a character through space.

Rewritten example: Sue walked into the gilt and silk living room of her mother's home, gagging on the clash of floral odors: lilac potpourri, jasmine candles, lavender sachets. Did her mom even smell the cloying thickness anymore? Did she ever try to glance beyond the draped and beribboned window coverings that kept the room in perpetual dusk? Or was she using the white-on-white colors and velvet textures to hide from the real world? With a sigh Sue sank into a designer chair and hoped she could crawl out of it sooner rather than later.


Sue walked into the heart of her childhood home, remembering playing cowboys and Indians behind the worn tweed couch, building tents draped over the nicked coffee table, hiding behind the cotton drapes that were now replaced by newer blinds. Her grandmother used to shudder when she deigned to visit the house, but Sue's mum didn't care. Now she'd no longer be knitting in her easy chair or patting the sagging couch for a tell-me-all-about-it session.

See? The details painted allow you to experience a lot more than simply seeing a room. That's the power of Active Setting.