What is Setting?
Yes, its the background to your story. It’s the city or the house, or the mystical land where your characters interact, but it’s also much more. The setting is the foundation of your story. It’s what keeps your reader grounded in the fictional world you’ve constructed. So how do we write a Setting that will knit together the various plotlines of our story? Well, there are a few things we can do.
How to Write a Setting
Start with the basics, right? And what’s more basic than sight, sound, smell, taste, and feel? This is an easy place to start building your setting. How does the air smell? Like Gardenias, or garbage? What does it look like? A summer cottage or a screeching starship? What does the food taste like? Is it savory or sweet? What are the sounds of this place? Can you hear the wind rushing over mountains and through valleys? Or is there a constant beeping and buzz of traffic and crowds?
Addressing all five of the senses will flesh out the setting in your reader’s mind. It will make your story feel real to them. It will keep them engaged in the story rather than wondering about some element you’ve left out.
A setting can go a long way in making your story more diverse and realistic. I still remember a book I read as a young boy. It was a detective story. I don’t recall the name, but I’m pretty sure it was a Carl Hiaasen novel. I don’t remember the plot or any of the story, but I do remember this one scene.
The scene begins with a private investigator. He’s looking for information at a house somewhere in south Florida. The family of the home is Cuban. Rather than saying this explicitly, Hiaasen lets the setting do the talking. When the detective arrives the women of the house are in the kitchen frying plantains.
He describes the process of oiling the pan, cutting up the plantains, the golden-brown color as they’re flipped in the skillet. The smell that fills the house. The taste as the investigator bites into one. The women going back and forth in Spanish. The whole scene is about the detective finding a clue for the case he’s working. The cooking is the background, but it’s was makes the scene come alive. It was also a great way to insert the culture of the setting into the narrative. It’s been years since I read that book, and I can’t tell you a thing about the plot, but what I do remember are the plantains. I remember the setting. Why? Because I’ve never been to a Cuban house. I’ve never eaten fried plantains, but I got to experience all of that in the pages of the book.
When I write I often get carried away. I lose track of where my characters are and let my imagination run amok. I might write a story wherein one scene two characters are frolicking down a beach, but on the drive home, they encounter a deadly blizzard. This may serve my plot, but it leaves the reader wondering where they are. Considering setting helps to reign in your plot and keep things anchored to reality. If your story takes place near a beach then chances are the weather should be warm and the air salty.
The setting can be especially useful when writing fantasy or sci-fi. Here the rules that govern reality are more flexible. You don’t want to get carried away with all that freedom. Use the Setting to provide limits within your story.
Take, for instance, J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter series. Writing about young wizards, it would be tempting to build a world full of fantastic locations. Rowling keeps the story grounded by setting it in a school. The characters are limited because they are still young and learning. The world opens up as Harry and co. grow into adulthood, but Rowling is careful to always place limits on what her characters can do. No one is ever “all-powerful.” And those limits come from the setting.
Take the rule baring young wizards from using magic outside of school. This means that Harry has to weather all sorts of abuse from his mean-spirited cousin. He can never retaliate with a nice killing curse.
So, if you’re writing a story- especially a fantasy- take time to develop boundaries within your setting. What is allowed and what isn’t? What is hidden? What area is impassable? What parts of the setting will your character need to overcome to resolve their conflict?
Write Setting through Characters
You need to explore your setting as thoroughly as your characters and plot. That means you need to give your setting a history, and backstory. What happened in this place that informs how people live and act? Utah was settled by a group of people following a prophet and searching for religious freedom. California was tamed by men and women in search of fortune or fame or both. These separate histories make for two very different settings today.
The people who inhabit your setting should have an identity that reflects the place they’re from. Is your setting a rugged and forbidding landscape? Then the people who live there should be tough and self-reliant. You should also ask yourself questions like: What do people do for a living in this place? What educational background do they come from? And what problems do they live with?
The setting is as much about culture as it is about time and place. Fill your setting with interesting people that reflect the unique character of the place they inhabit.
The Devil is in the Details
When it comes to the setting, what makes it come alive are the little things. Think about the home you grew up in. Was it that much different from any other house in your neighborhood? Probably not. What made my childhood home unique was the Kool-aid stain in the carpet that my mom lost her mind over. It was the dent in the wall from where I took a turn too fast and rammed my knee through the drywall. It was the deck that my dad built in the backyard. The mosaic tile floor that my mom spent an entire summer installing in the bathroom.
Whatever setting you choose, fill it with these tiny details that make your story seem authentic. It’s why people love the “dirty future” of the original Star Wars films. Sure there were starships, and robots, and speeders. But they were all dented, and dirty, and rusted to all hell, and dammit that’s what made it seem real!
One last thing…
Make sure to consider how your setting will interact with the plot. A change in setting early in the story will signal that the protagonist is moving into a larger world of adventure. You can also use the setting to telegraph a theme or emotion. Take, for instance, the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the film, we see the main character Danny riding his big wheel through the twisting corridors of the hotel. The hotel’s maze-like design gives the viewer a sense of claustrophobia and menace. Later, Kubrick cashes in on our fear as Jack chases his family through those same corridors. The hotel has become a living character, a trap from which our characters must escape if they want to survive.
OK. That’s all I have or now, but if you have some tips about setting let me know in the comments! Or, if you think I’ve got no idea what I’m talking about you can leave a comment too. I mean, I’ll delete it, but I’ll take your thoughts into consideration…
13 comments on “Writing a Powerful Setting”
A good post. Thanks for this helpful information. 🙂 — Suzanne
Thanks, Suzanne! I hope you find it useful!
The classroom in which I entered by fluke was so grìpping that instead of the tip of my right hand thumb softly knocking the soft surface of my mobile phone ;to go over to next pin, my eyes got arrested to what all my mind was hungry for.
Thanks for the feedback, Shraddha! I hope you find the article useful.
This is a good post. It reminded me of several things to include in the story I’m writing. Thanks.
Thanks Penny. Glad I could help with your story!