Getting the Setting Right

You’ve got the story, you’ve got the characters and you’ve have the plot all planned out, but do you have the right setting?

The setting of the story is just as important as all the other aspects when it comes to writing. 
It doesn’t matter whether your story is set in Victorian London, modern day New York or the planet Mars in the 23rd century, you still have to let the reader know where and when the story is taking place because it helps the reader instantly understand the context and tone of the story and it tells them where the action is happening so that not only can they can visualise it, but they can become involved in the story.
In novels, readers expect a little more than a few lines of description to tell them that character A is walking around in some nondescript city.  Which city?  Where? Is it morning or evening or afternoon?  What’s the weather like?  Are the streets full with people or are they empty and desolate?

If the writer fails to share more of the setting, then the story also fails, to a degree, because it would be like a landscape painting but without the landscape.

By providing a setting, the writer is also providing extra information for the reader.  If, for instance, your character is in Far East, the reader will expect the setting to reflect that – the rich, diverse landscape should form the backdrop and provide the reader with extra information, as well as the flavours, colours and sounds.

Getting the Setting Right
Many writers make the mistake of either not making the setting known, or they go overboard with far too much description that the result is boring and badly written.
The best way to help the reader understand the setting it is to sprinkle the narrative with palatable snippets so that the description doesn’t overwhelm the reader in large, daunting chunks.
For example:
From the main road, John noticed a crop of tall masts glinting in the sun, bright against the azure sky.  They helped him navigate his way through the tourist crowd and finally he came to a large square edged by lively bistros and bars.  In front of him lay the marina, one of the busiest in Hampton…
From this brief description the reader knows that the action/scene is set in a marina, it’s a busy area because it mentions tourists and it references bars, and it also mentions that it’s a nice day because the sun is shining in azure sky.  There isn’t a lot of description, but the small snippets of information – tall masts, sun, tourists, bars and liveliness – adequately relate the setting.
The right setting also means getting the right balance with the description.  The setting does more than simply describe where and why or tells the reader where the action is taking place.  It also gives background colour to scenes and can act as a backdrop for atmosphere and tension.
For example:
The shadowy figure walked the darkened London city streets.  Rain splashed against his half-cloaked face.  Street lights shimmered against the downpour, reflected in puddles. In the distance the clouds churned above the night skyline. A flash of light momentarily brightened the scene before a low rumble sounded overhead. His cold breath hung in the air…
This simple example of setting tells the reader exactly what they need to know.  By adding descriptive flourishes, the whole setting is complete.  The reader knows where that the action is taking place in a city; they know it is night time, they know it’s raining and cold, they can hear the thunder and they can picture the lightning.  The setting has a strong noir feel - it has colour and texture and atmosphere.
Again the example isn’t overly descriptive, it provides small amounts of information that help construct the setting – city street, rain, street lights, churning clouds and cold stormy weather. 
It’s very simple in practice, yet so many writers forget to provide this information.
Setting adds power and effect to the narrative.  It does so much more than simply tell the reader where the action takes place.  Remember that it is part of the whole set up, so when you write your story, don’t forget to include those snippets of valuable information.  It’s worth it.

Next week: Seeking appraisal for your writing, and why it’s important.


  1. Good advice. Thank you for your reminder to work on the setting.

  2. With Fantasy, especially, the setting can be particularly difficult if not thought out properly. If you set your tale in victorian london, then with little research, the author can understand the location and describe it as you suggest above.

    However, with a fantasy world or other imaginative setting, no such references exist. You cannot rely on any familiarity for the reader and you as the author does not have a great idea of the where and when either.

    I am becoming a great believer in mapping as a good starting point. Working out where your land is, what features it has, what barriers, weather, and so on means that at the very least you know what your character can see when they wake up in the morning and look out of your window.

    Once you have defined your world in a geographical sense, you can then put restrictions on how this place has been changed by civilisation - architecture and so on, for instance. Now you are really beginning to understand the sense of space and place and can wax lyrical over it as much or as little as you need.

    However, having gone to all this hard work, you have now also given yourself a sense of continuity so as your book progresses, as the journey of the characters moves on, you have this firm grounding which serves as a starting point for each phase of your story.

    I have done a little guide to mapping here, if it is of any use:

    It also links on to a more technical tutorial on creating maps.

  3. Other might find it useful, especially for SF or fantasy, but I don't use it.

  4. For my WIP I had to research prototypes for space ships and human habitat structures that could possibly be set up on our moon. I did drawings for both after I realized the route I had a group of teens sneaking through couldn't exist.
    I drew and wrote long detailed descriptions then deleted at least 75%. Some members of my critique group got lost, some didn't. More editing is needed.

    For a different short the setting is just outside of Yosemite Park. I relied on personal memory but double checked the geography with Google Earth.

    I'm a firm believer in research to prevent the reader saying, "That's not possible."

    1. I agree with putting in the effort, Kathleen. There will always be someone who has more knowledge of a subject, so best to make it as realistic as possible - the sign of thorough and in depth research.


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