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What Is Setting?
In fiction and nonfiction writing, setting is the backdrop to a story or 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. Without properly established setting, readers are adrift.
There are typically two nodes to creating setting: Place, and time. (Social behavior is a natural result of both.)
- Place denotes both geographical location and the 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.
- Time in setting can be expressed as a time of day, or “clock time,” a season or time of year, or a historical time period. Clock time is what drives the tense pace in a thriller; seasonal activity might provide life and death stakes; historical periods defines the behavior of all the characters operating within it.
Why Is Setting Important?
Setting is important to your story because your characters are a product of their environment. Imagery and environment offer opportunities for juxtaposition and metaphor, and there is as much value in describing the physical world a person inhabits as there is in describing the person themselves. It allows you to find new ways of describing characters by focusing on what’s happening around them.
Location is an enormously useful tool in novel-building. Treat it as you would treat a character, allowing it to convey mood and letting it reveal more of itself over time. By selecting locations that excite you, you can transform relatively mundane scenes into more compelling ones. Your enthusiasm will come through in your writing, and your characters will view and interact with your locales in a more engaged way. Location can provide the inspiration for scenes and can even shape the course of your story, and determine how your characters move through it.
When you’re starting out, don’t limit yourself. Explore your world to its furthest reaches. Knowing every detail of your setting is immensely important to the writing process for any author, and you’ll need it to inform everything that happens in your plot, but remember not to put too much location detail into your writing, or you risk boring your audience. Readers are interested in your characters and plot, so information about your world is best conveyed through a character’s sensory experience or through action.
5 Exercises to Help You Write More Vivid Settings
- Visit a location you’ve never been to before—either 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 10 places or elements of your setting and write them on index cards or slips of paper. 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, and keep them 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 them, 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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