I studied set design and construction for film in college, not writing. But that makes me the most qualified person to tell you that you’re probably doing plot wrong. When creating the world of a film we don’t just think about the physical place, but how it reflects the characters and how it’ll influence the emotions of the viewer. We pick out every piece of furniture meticulously and work in teams to create not only makeup, wardrobe, props, furniture, rooms, but also build worlds from the ground up and they always have to make sense and be believable.
Without setting, everything is taking place inside 4 white walls, and while there’s more left to the imagination in a novel than a film set, you can’t expect readers to world build for you. So what’s the secret to making a setting really have an emotional impact and be more than just a backdrop?
Treat your setting like a character.
Have the setting change over time, whether that’s getting cleaner, messier, or burning to the ground. Describe it in ways that make people fall in love with it, despise it, or be disgusted with it. Have the weather react to news, and interact with the characters. Create physical blocks with it, the way another character might try to slow your hero down.
Don’t be afraid to spend a couple of sentences describing a new place when you come to it, but return to old places as much as you can. In film, every location change and new set costs thousands of dollars, so we see the characters returning to the same place again and again. This will let you fully explore the room and let the characters fully probe the room without dumping information on the reader. Let your characters use all five senses, pick up items, smell burning bread in another room, see something sitting on the mantel. Let them move through the world not just stand in front of it.
Flesh out your world and it’s backstory the way you would a character. There’s a story behind old buildings and the way they were treated by their owners. Homes say a lot about the people who live there and give you a great opportunity to show instead of tell.