Every story occurs in some place, at some time. This guide offers some advice for establishing the right setting for a story. The setting can be determined by the story, or the story can be determined by the setting. Either way, the story and setting depend on each other in ways that some others overlook.
Settings are important to readers because a setting can set the parameters for a story. Even without knowing the plot of a story, being given the location is enough that readers start to make assumptions about characters and events. Consider how the following openings start you along a specific path as a reader:
The air was hot and dry in the Arizona desert. It had been a two-hour ride into Rio Verde, not so much a town as a collection of leaning walls and sagging roofs. Two saloons, a general store, a barbershop, and a livery stable. No bank, no jail, and no obvious reason to exist, Rio Verde was either dying or waiting to be reborn.
Castles inspire awe from the outside. Inside, they tend to be cold and damp.
The brownstones of East 23rd Street shook every ten minutes as the elevated train passed behind them. Children played on the sidewalk and in the street, while mothers stood in doorways or sat on concrete stairs telling stories about the women over on Tenth, where the homes had yards and the children played inside.
We anticipate a lot about a story based on the setting. Stories set on space stations are quite different from stories set on Amish farms. Castles and condos, ranches and rainforests, the setting gives a reader clues about the characters and their motives. A writer can either play into or against those expectations.
Different types of stories require different levels of detail when establishing a setting. A historical romance and a science fiction novel both have demanding audiences expecting not only details about the setting but a great deal of accuracy. Historical novels mention political circumstances, economic changes, and the greater context of events. Readers of Western adventures might expect less information. The Old West was isolated — events elsewhere in the world might not matter to a small town.
A story about two lovers torn apart by war is affected by which war the author uses as a general setting. The English Civil War and the American Civil War are quite different. Certainly a romance set in World War II is not the same as a story dealing with the Vietnam conflict. It’s easy to dismiss such comparisons until you begin to consider what types of people would be affected in each case.
Specific settings are more difficult to develop than the general setting for a story. Often, a story only needs to allude to the general setting, but a specific setting is exactly what the name implies: extremely specific. This means you will need to develop details, some of which might not make it into the final version of a story.
It is difficult to stress enough the value of research. When you begin to describe a specific setting, fictional or real, readers will demand accuracy and consistency in ways you might not anticipate. Make a single mistake describing the layout of the Pentagon or a famous English castle and readers will complain. There will always be a reader who knows more about a place or time period than you do, but that’s not an excuse to make careless errors.
If you create a fictional New York, California, or Minnesota city, you still need to know a lot about the state and other, real, cities. If you use a real city as a setting, you need to locate maps of the city as it existed in the time of your story. Never assume readers won’t notice minor details. Having a character drive from L.A. to San Francisco means you need to know the roads taken, the distance covered, and the time involved.
Setting is more than what can be seen by characters. Places have sounds and smells associated with them, too, and these are the two senses writers should exploit because studies show sounds and smells trigger memories. Few settings can be described in terms of taste or touch, but don’t ignore the possibility that a character might taste dust or feel warm sand. Think of all five senses when you write about a setting.
Write about where you are at this moment. What sounds do you hear? Are there any smells? Close your eyes and consider everything you don’t see. Now try writing about the setting.
Schools, offices, churches, city streets, and every other setting you might use have sounds and smells you should exploit. A county fair might smell of cotton candy, fresh baked goods, and livestock. The midway of a fair is cacophony of voices, music, and games. Even a perfect silence is important to mention, since it signals something is strange about the setting.
People think the woods are quiet, but that’s because they don’t listen. When you stand still, you can hear branches creak, the leaves rustle, and a dozen different bird species. The evergreens give off a sweet scent, carried by the breeze.
Plot and Story
Deciding on a setting does affect the nature of a story and how the story is told. Stories with office settings are not the same as stories set in a jungle. While that seems obvious, writers often place a story in the “wrong” time or place. Even deciding a city is more appropriate than a jungle leaves the question: which city? Places and times have visceral effect on readers.
Time is as important as the place, as any reader of historical novels knows. Chicago in the 1920s is not the same as Chicago in 2000. It is almost unthinkable to write about 1920s Chicago and not mention organized crime. You might be writing a crime story, love story, or a coming-of-age story, but once you have selected 1920s Chicago, some very important aspects of the place and time will affect the characters and plot.
A story set in pre-World War II Europe is not the same as a story set in ancient Athens, even if both stories deal with issues of war and propaganda. The characters would behave differently because they would necessarily be from different cultures. The roles of men and women would be different, for example. You select a setting based on what it conveys to the audience, and WWII has a different set of “meanings” for an audience than ancient Greece.
Setting as Backbone
Almost a Character
Reality and Fantasy
Characters and Settings
The process for developing specific settings is similar to that of developing characters. You need to consider everything a reader might ask about the time and place, and then you need to decide which facts are essential to determine for readers. A good setting is clear to readers, but that doesn’t mean you need to describe every tile of a floor or blade of grass in a meadow. What would a character really notice, and why? If no character would notice there’s a dandelion in the grass, don’t bother telling readers about the weed.
|About the General|
|About the Specific|
|Names of places/buildings|
|Role in story|
|What we see|
|Personality of place|