On its most basic level, the setting of your story is simply the location at which your story takes place, like a set to a stage show. This includes the location, the immediate surroundings, the weather and the time. But quite often, the setting is much more than just the ‘where and when’ of your story.
The setting will show much about your characters – their lifestyle, how they respond to recognisable and unfamiliar environments and how they are feeling. The description of an environment familiar to the reader can even direct them to special memories of their own. Rather than simply throwing your characters into an apartment building ‘just because’, consider how that setting will affect your characters and your plot. Think about how the location and time can be symbolic or metaphorical.
The type of story you are writing will have a significant impact on the way you describe your setting. In a thriller, the author employs dark imagery and metaphor to evoke a feeling of discomfort in the reader.
Along the final stretch of deserted road before the farm … the winter snow had melted away but the topsoil was hard and jagged with ice. There was no sign of life, no crops, no tractors, no farmers – stillness, but overhead the clouds were moving incredibly fast, as though the sun were a plug that had been pulled out of the horizon and the clouds, along with the dregs of daylight, were being sucked down a sinkhole.” – Tom Rob Smith, The Farm
In a fantasy, the setting is full of mystery, twinkling lights and tree trunks so thick you can’t wrap your arms around them. The characters may stumble upon a misty swamp, escape from a gloomy dungeon or ride on a dragon’s back amongst the orange clouds of an evening sky. The magic is never too far away.
They walked under the trees, where dusk already extended its tendrils from inside hollow logs, dark crevices in boulders, and the underside of knobby eaves. Here and there, a gemlike lantern twinkled within the side of a tree or at the end of a branch, casting gentle pools of light on either side of the path.” – Christopher Paolini, Eldest
If your story happens in a real place, be sure to research that place. Many readers love to read about towns and cities where they have lived or places they have visited. It is essential, therefore, that you get your facts straight. If you make up a new building, great, but don’t be too specific about its location. If you go one step further and make up an entirely new place, of course you can do what you like with it but make sure the general geographic details are realistic.
If possible, it helps to spend time in your setting. Absorb the sounds, the sights, the smells and the feelings caused by your environment. Be there at different times of the day. A city street at nine o’clock in the morning on a weekday looks very different on a Saturday night. Check that any flora or fauna you mention can realistically be found in that region of the world. You won’t find a polar bear in the Australian outback (unless your character builds a zoo in Coober Pedy). Also check that your weather patterns are feasible.
Observing your environment forms part of your research. You should be on the lookout for ideas whenever you visit a new place. In fact, you should be on the lookout for ideas whenever you visit a familiar place! You might just spot the perfect place for a …
Many writers, especially those who like to go through rigorous planning stages before starting to write, develop a template on which they write notes about a new setting. These notes can include general impressions at first sight, sensory impressions, climate, style and age of the buildings and even types of transportation. If you do decide to develop such a sheet, you don’t have to fill in every detail for every piece of writing. Or, you might just need to modify your sheet to suit the genre. Nevertheless, the more details you remember, the more realistic your setting will be when you sit down to write. If you’re not into note-taking, newspaper clippings, travel brochures and your own photographs are excellent memory-joggers.
Vivid descriptive passages give readers a chance to escape to a totally different world. That is the beauty of reading! You might see the inner-workings of unusual occupations or delve into a dark sanctum with a team of cave divers, facing your own fear of the underground. How does the CEO of a multimillion dollar company survive the rigours of the daily grind? Many authors sprinkle inside information into their settings, details that might otherwise be overlooked by a writer who hasn’t done their research or lacks life experience in the subject on which they are writing.
Bestselling Australian author Matthew Reilly is well-known for thorough research. He has never been in the military yet in his 1999 adventure, Temple, he inserts a subtle sprinkling of information about the M-1A1 Abrams tank into his description of the setting.
The picture of brutal, untameable strength. Its black-painted composite armour didn’t shine, its monstrously wide tracks stood planted on the cargo deck, splayed wide. Bittiker gazed at its imposing trapezoidal gun turret. It faced resolutely forward, toward the front of the plane, its long-bodied 105mm cannon pointing upward at a 30-degree angle” – Matthew Reilly, Temple
Try not to spend too many precious words on descriptive passages without showing the setting from your character’s viewpoint. Not only will this keep your readers entertained but they will also understand your character’s mood without telling them directly. If your character wants to be alone, the never-ending line of apple trees in the sun-kissed orchard looks pretty good. But if they’re searching for someone or hiding from a murderer, the apple trees may take on a different, more sinister appearance.
In The Notebook, Allie and Noah are in the middle of a storm but Allie’s description of the storm shows us that she is happy.
The sky darkened a little more, and big heavy drops fell from the clouds. Hurricane drops. Allie enjoyed the rain and leaned her head back for a moment to let it hit her face. She knew the front of her dress would soak through in a couple of minutes but she didn’t care … She ran her hands through her hair, feeling its wetness. It felt wonderful, she felt wonderful, everything felt wonderful … A cloud burst directly above them, and the rain began to come down even harder. Harder than she’d ever seen it” – Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook
* * *
As a writer, I’m driven by settings. Others are driven by characters or predicaments, but with me, settings come first” – Jim Lynch
The setting might be the catalyst on which your story is developed. Author Jim Lynch starts writing once he has chosen a ‘where’. But no matter where you choose to start writing, crafting your setting skilfully can take your story to the next level.