I love watching the “Outtakes” of digitally animated films. Props and setting in these computer generated projects have a tendency to disappear or distort in unbelievable ways. A great example of this is the set of Bugs Life when the rocks in the canyon suddenly started floating! It was a happy accident, though, and you can see the crazy landscape in the opening scene of Toy Story 2.
In writing, however, a confusing landscape can pull the reader out of the story. For example, if your MC passes a park and a store on the way to school, the park cannot be the first thing your MC passes when coming home. But keep all that straight in your head can be a pain so my advice is
Instead, draw a map or make a model. I use Word or Paint on my computer, but you can sketch it on a piece of paper. Here's How:
1. Draw a Template
2. Place Unmovables
Now that you have a basic idea of what kind of setting you need for the scene, it's time to put some unmovables in. For example, where are the doors or intersections? Where are the furniture or buildings? While you're placing the unmovables, you need to consider how many characters and extras will be in this setting. This is important because you must make sure there’s room for them. If you’re trying to fit twenty characters into a one-room apartment, there’s not going to be a lot of elbow room. So don’t let your MC sprawl out on the sofa and have your MC’s uncle lounging on the chair watching TV with his wife while 5 kids play a quiet board game on the floor. And ten cooks in the apartment kitchen will not be able to make and serve a delicious meal without falling over each other.
Conversely, a woman coming in the front door will not be able to kiss her husband on the couch if the entire living room is between them.
My point is to make sure your setting is large enough - or small enough - to fit the story.
My MC is an only child in a rural house, so his bedroom is small, but not too small.
How familiar is this setting to your reader? The more familiar the setting to your contemporary reader, the more true to the realistic rules of the setting you should be. For example, the average American kitchen has a stove, refrigerator, and a sink. The rest of the room is oriented around these three large appliances. Similarly, the average American bedroom has a bed, a dresser, and a closet. Unless you tell the reader otherwise, most readers will expect these in the setting.
On the other hand, an unbelievable setting ruin the scene. A contemporary apartment, for example, would probably not send the reader down a hallway to get to the kitchen.
My MC has a bedroom on the second floor with a window overlooking his driveway and the neighbor’s house. If the bedroom were in the basement of his rural house, the window would no longer be realistic.
Side Note: Lessons from TV
I’ve gleaned some great setting advice from watching TV. However, my observations will be dated because I stopped watching in the nineties. But you’ll get the idea, and you can update the shows, (they reuse the sets anyway).
3. Do you know where your characters are?
When I directed plays, I used to block out the scenes before I even met the cast. Blocking is when you make a map or model of the stage and sets, and decide where each character will enter, exit, and move throughout the play. Knowing this ahead of rehearsals kept me from giving contradictory instructions to the cast and crew.
Similarly, I sometimes block out the scenes that I'm writing. Knowing when and where each character is in the setting helps determine how they can believably interact. For example, If want my MC to look out the window, then I can't have him hiding in his closet.
Maybe your work needs a larger map... Say a whole made up country. Here's a tutorial I just found on how to do that.
I write about, with, for, and around kids all day. (Well, maybe I do the dishes too. Sometimes.)