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What Is Setting?
In fiction and nonfiction writing, setting is the backdrop of a story or the atmosphere of a scene. It provides the context for your main characters’ actions and includes all aspects of place, from visual description to historical time to social environment.
How to Create a Vivid Setting for Your Story
Writing vividly is all about evoking clear imagery and detail in the mind of the reader. Here’s how to create a richly textured world for your story:
- Use place to your advantage. Place denotes both geographical location and immediate surroundings. A story that unfolds in the hurried chaos of New York is not the same if transplanted to an isolated island in the Pacific. A scene that takes place in a cramped room shifts when it occurs in a vast forest.
- Make use of time. Time in setting can be expressed as a time of day, a season or time of year, or a historical time period. Seasonal changes—the advent of winter, a blistering summer—might provide life or death stakes; historical periods define the behavior of all the characters operating within your fictional world.
- Show the world through your characters’ eyes. Try to reveal the world as the characters interact with it, since the most resonant setting descriptions are the ones that come somewhat altered through the lens of an individual. If you’re writing historical fiction, for example, you may be pulling from a real place or time. Snippets of accuracy can give palpable energy to your prose. As with anything that requires lots of research, knowing what to include can be a balancing act: too much detail, and the reader is overwhelmed.
- Be aware of how setting affects emotions. Allow setting to influence your characters’ actions and moods. Otherwise, they and the world they live in will come across as static and lacking nuance. The lives of humans—or mythical creatures living in fantasy worlds—are intimately tied to setting.
5 Exercises for Writing Vivid Settings
Try these writing exercises to develop a strong story setting and see where it takes your narrative:
- Visit a real-world location you’ve never been to before. This can be an actual place from a setting you’ve chosen or simply a place near you that you find interesting. When you first arrive at the location, don’t record or photograph or write anything down, just spend some time absorbing it through your senses. Pay attention to the things that strike you most. Go home later and write a description of the place. Remember to include the sensory details—what it felt and smelled and sounded like.
- Select an important location from your novel or short story. This could be anything—a public building, a business, a famous landmark, a landscape, or someone’s house. Now choose two characters from your story and write a short paragraph describing how they might react to the setting. Explore different points of view of your chosen place.
- Choose places and write them on index cards. Organize them according to how you think a story should unfold at those locations. Would it make more sense for your characters to move from one theme to another (e.g. from religious buildings to scientific ones)? What’s the most efficient way to organize them? Would a random route be more interesting?
- Focus on memorable details. Keep the details grounded in a character’s sensory experience. Everyone probably knows what a tree looks like, so if you’re describing one, tell the reader what makes it different or why it’s important from your character’s point of view. You’ll want to let your reader know what it feels like for the character, what it sounds and smells and tastes like. No matter what kind of world you’re creating, this technique can bring more vividness to your writing.
- On an unlined sheet of paper, create a map of your world. Pay attention to detail: Even the smallest moments can help you visualize a world more clearly. Show landscape features like mountains and lakes and roads; mark cities if you have them, and note regions and counties, too. Try to match the feel of your setting. If it’s a magical world, show features pertaining to this—a dark magician’s fortress, for example.
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