What is a setting?
Your elementary school English teacher probably said it’s the where and when of a story. True. But as a writer, we know that the setting is more than just the where and when. The weather and social climate can also be part of the setting. It can be to mood and emotions that the characters can’t express. It can be pure beauty, when a great writer and reader are paired up. The setting can speak to our souls as much as any character. It can make the reader long to live in that little cottage in the woods surrounded by fairies or in the bustling 1920’s city of Chicago. The setting can be so alive that it feels like a character in and of itself.
- Where (Planet, Country, State, City, Dwelling, room…)
- When (what century, age, decade, year…)
- Weather (sun, rain, wind, humidity, smell …)
- Social Climate (hostile, comforting, tense, bustling…)
- Mood (word choice used to convey the emotion of the story)
What’s the Purpose of Setting?
There are 5 ways in which setting is important to the story:
- Setting is the thread holding the scenes, the themes, and events together.
- Setting helps readers visualize the story so it plays like a movie in their head.
- It provides context to a story. So for example, if a patient got sick and the doctor put leeches on me to rebalance my humors in 2020, you’d be confused. (unless you are writing an alternate history story) That was common practice in 1873. However, describing passersby wearing masks in 2020 is not confusing, it matches the time period’s expectations and experience.
- Setting can help emphasize the emotional feelings. In the Ernshaw quote below, you get a foreboding feeling and you haven’t even met a single character yet.
- Lastly, setting can control the flow and pace of the story. During a big battle writers describe only what is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand what’s happening. This keeps a fast pace. After the battle, the writer might take time to look over the battlefield and see the massive devastation and let the meaning of the outcome sink into the reader’s mind–give them a moment to breathe.
How do you Decide the Setting of Your Story?
Maybe you already know the setting for your next writing project. That’s great! But read on anyway and see if it fits the story you want to tell.
- Does it fit the plot?
- Does it fit the characters?
- Does it fit the theme?
For example, if you are telling the story of a shy girl afraid of her own shadow who learns to not be afraid. You could set the story on a secluded farm, but it might make it very challenging to present the girl with opportunities to overcome her fear. However, put that quiet girl in a big, noisy city for the first time and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to challenge that fear and overcome it.
Let’s say you want to convey the theme: Doing things right is less important than doing them for the right reasons. You decide to set the story in space with a clumsy character. This might be difficult because in space, if you don’t get the hatch sealed just right, the cabin decompresses and everybody dies. Yes. You could tell that story, but it would be a harder message to convey than one in a less dangerous setting.
Some things to consider regarding Setting
- How many locations will be in your story? A short story will need only 1 or two settings at most. An epic fantasy story will probably have dozens, especially if it is a journey type story. Other novels will be somewhere in between.
- What is the geography of the setting? How does this geography affect and play into the plot? For example, Brandon Sanders’s Stormlight Archive began with the idea of hurricanes that routinely and endlessly circle the planet. (like the red spot on Jupiter) He took that idea and thought about how entire societies would adapt to such an environment—their architecture, their customs, their livelihoods.
- What are the occupations of the characters? How does this affect how your characters view their world?
- What are the customs and history? Is your story a melting pot of cultures and customs, or is it more homogenous? Is the plot centered on a clash of culture or tradition?
- Look at your goals for the story and determine if the setting fits and will allow you to achieve the goals for your plot, characters, and theme.
Setting at the Scene Level
One difficulty is balance. The writer must find the right balance between enough setting description. Writers spend hours imagining the worlds they create, and they want to share that joy with the readers. If the writer puts in every detail, it leaves nothing to the imagination for the reader.
Conversely, if you do not put enough description of the setting in place, the readers will have a very hard time understanding and visualizing where the characters are located. They’ll be floating in blackness.
The key is to describe the setting without your readers even realizing it. Or make your description of the setting so beautiful that the readers drool on the page. Look at this opening scene of Winterwood:
“A boy went missing the night of the storm.Shea Ernshaw, Winterwood, pg. 1
The night snow sailed down from the mountains and howled against the eaves of the old house as if through gritted teeth—cruel and baleful and full of bad omens not to be ignored.” by Shea Ernshaw
Right off the bat, we know the conflict… but we also know quite a bit about the setting.
- Old house
- Cruel winds
- Hinting a bad omens
We have a clear view of the mood. Ernshaw wove these words creatively, so they are pleasing to read rather than cliche like, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Notice how Earnshaw used personification of the wind and the house to make the scene active, rather than passive.
Then she continues to sprinkle in description, like this:
“I stood listening to the shouts of boys fanning out into the trees, the sky growing dark again, another storm settling over the lake. I knew how ruthless the forest could be, how unforgiving.”Shea Ernshaw, Winterwood, pg. 17
Little bits here and there add up to a nice, clear picture.
- When writing a description of the setting, be creative.
- Ground each scene with a line or 3 of setting.
- Sprinkle in setting throughout the scene (a little bit, like salt–too much is gross)
I wrote about the tools of description available to you in this post: https://quillandbooks.com/2020/02/07/ a-deep-dive-into-description-tools-of-the-craft/
When you describe your scenes use as many senses as possible.
“His hands tremble, his eyes skipping warily through the trees–as if he sees something in the dark. A trick of shadow and moonlight. But the woods surrounding Jackjaw Lake are safe and docile, not nearly as ancient as the Wicker Woods where I found him. These trees are young, harvested over the years for lumber, and the pines that loom over my home were sapling not long ago–still soft and green at their core. They have limbs that sway with the wind instead of moan and crack; they aren’t old enough to hold grudges or memories.”Shea Ernshaw, Winterwood, pg. 19
- His hands trembled (touch)
- A trick of the shadow and moonlight (sight)
- Soft and green at their core (touch)
- Limbs that sway with the wind (sight and touch)
- Moan and crack (sound)
Some editing questions at the scene level:
- Where is this scene set? Are the characters grounded in the scene in the first paragraph. Are there sprinkled hints throughout the scene to build the set?
- When is this occurring? Day or night, morning or evening? Are there hints of this?
- Weather–perhaps you can use the weather to show your character’s storm mood or cheerful mood. Maybe a shifting wind can reflect your character’s indecision.
- Does the social climate affect this scene? have you hinted at this somewhere at the scene.
- Does the mood reflect the emotion the story needs in this scene?
- How many senses have you included in the scene description? (Try using 2-3 in each scene)
This is not an exhaustive examination of setting by any stretch. Entire books have been written about this. I hope, though, I have given you something to think about when planning your next project and editing your scenes.
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