What is the purpose of story “setting” and how do you establish it?
The setting of a story has a role to play, and that is to create a sense of “being there” for readers. A description of your story’s setting should establish a time and place in the reader’s mind and help them to visualize the characters in that time and place.
The story setting is not just a description of a mountain landscape, an urban street, or a country farmhouse. The setting is more than a visual description; it should also convey the sense of being there by describing what a reader (and character) might feel, hear, smell, sense, or taste in a particular environment.
Story Setting – A Misunderstood Element of Writing Fiction
Writing the setting of a story is often confused with writing descriptively (writing descriptively is often confused with writing well; see the upcoming article on Descriptive Writing for more information). You want to describe the environment that your character finds herself in, but to do it effectively you must consider certain novel writing elements.
Some writers will tell you that the setting of a story is the most often mismanaged, abused, even ignored element of writing. The reason for this may be due to a number of novel writing faux pas:
- The setting of a story is not detailed or specific enough and does not give the reader a sense of being swept away to another place and time.
- The writer, an expounder, goes on for pages and pages about the visual image of a setting without a character, smell, feeling, or sound in the environment.
- The writer, a minimalist, briefly describes the setting of a story – “It was a cold winter.” Again, without placing a character in the environment or allowing the reader a way to relate to the cold.
How to Write the Details of Story Setting
A mountain landscape is beautiful in itself – a setting that nearly anyone can imagine – but a writer should give readers a sense of a particular landscape at a particular time. Is the landscape set in Vermont’s rolling hills of Hogback Mountain or in Colorado’s sky-high peaks of Mount Elbert in the Rockies? Is the altitude high enough that clouds seem to glide through the mountain and cold enough that snow accumulates on its peaks? Does the air feel fresh, icy, smell of wildflowers? What particular wildlife is indigenous to the area? Does your character hear the baleful sound of moose? Do eagles nest in the trees there?
An urban street may be crowded with people passing by on their way to and from work, have the smells of restaurants serving the lunch crowd, may even have homeless men or women panhandling or lying on the streets with their sacks of personal belongings.
Inside the country farmhouse, smells may blend together. Your character may smell the stench of manure on the dairy farmer’s boots sitting at the back door, the sickly sweet scent wafting in from the feed silo every time the kitchen door is opened, and the cinnamon fragrance of fresh baked pies – made from apples, ripe for picking on the tree out back and served with homemade ice cream.
How to Write A Story Setting that Comes to Life
To describe a desert as hot and dry is redundant and vague. Saying the desert temperature is 110 degrees with zero percent humidity provides a more detailed picture, but readers would have had to experience that desert condition to relate to it. The way to remedy this vagueness or disconnectedness with a reader is to use your characters to provide an image of a hot, dry atmosphere that nearly every reader can relate to.
How do the desert heat and lack of humidity affect your character? Are her lips dry, cracked, or oozing with blisters? Is sweat pouring down her face? Are her clothes damp and sticking to her skin? Do her sandaled feet feel as though they are being baked into the earth?
By describing the effects of the desert on a story’s character, the writer gives the story life. Most everyone can relate to dry, cracked lips (whether from desert heat or winter cold), and an oozing blister. Most everyone has experienced heat so intense that sweat running from their pores dampened their shirt enough to make it cling to their body.
These are all things that people experience in the heat. The setting of a story should be written so that it makes your readers feel the heat, feel your character’s discomfort because they can relate to it from their own experiences. One of my favorite writing quotes says it well: “Good Writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”—E. L. Doctorow
Another important reason for bringing the setting to life by placing your character in it is that it helps move the story. Describing a setting without a character may give readers an idea of the story’s time and place but it doesn’t draw them into the story. And we want to draw readers in, make them forget that they are sitting in bed reading a book before sleep—we want them to escape to the hills of Vermont, the mountains of Colorado, the Sahara desert.
If a reader is drawn into the story, they will keep turning the pages of a novel long into the night. That’s what we want to accomplish with every step of the novel writing process, including writing the setting of a story.
- The laundromat is brought to life by the character watching the dryer spin around a kaleidoscope of colors, the static cling making her hair rise or startling her with an electrical snap at her hands when she folds the clothes or the brushing of lint from her sweater.
- The gas station is brought to life by the fumes burning the character’s nose, his hands pressing the lever of the gas pump, the squeak of the squeegee across the windshield as he washes the windows.
In Story Setting neither Expounder nor a Minimalist Be
When writing the setting of a story it is important to strike a good balance. Write descriptively about times and places that are important to the story and work your characters into scenes or narratives that show the effects of the environment on the character.
- Too long of a description without the proper use of characters and senses may bore your readers – you know, those paragraphs and pages that you skip over when you are reading, that’s what we’re talking about here. If you write like an expounder, chances are your readers will skip over your setting descriptions too. Move your story along with exciting relevant descriptions that employ proper techniques for writing the setting of a story.
- Too short of a description of story setting may leave readers wondering where they are, or worse, knowing they are lying in bed reading a book to the point that they close its cover, turn off the light and go to sleep.
Striking a balance also means that you don’t spend many words describing things that don’t have an impact on the story, i.e., the table in the corner, unless it’s a special table vital to the story, the length of the city street, unless a race is being run on it, etc. Sometimes a table is just a table and a street is just a street; sometimes not. It all depends on the type of story you are writing and what you want your readers to sense about a particular environment, time or place.
It’s worth spending time writing and revising the setting of a story until you achieve a description that will sweep your readers away to another time and place.
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I’d also love to hear from you! Do you use certain tricks or tips when developing your story setting? Do you write it extemporaneously or return to it later in the process?