Creating a setting

The setting of a story is all about the details. The way in which your character interacts with the world around them can show a reader everything that they need to know, for example, a warm cup in their hand could suggest that they’re in a busy cafe.

Starting with the concepts of place and time, the setting is the place or condition where something exists or happens.

If you’re starting from scratch and haven’t attempted to create/ recreate a setting before then starting to write about a place that you know can be a good practise exercise. It’s all about the details. Look around, describe what you see and you’ve effectively recreated a setting. For most writers it’s the trick of doing this without having a physical reference that really makes a story stand out.

If the writer believes it then the reader should believe it.

Personally, I typically decide on the place before the time and I’ll start with the immediate surroundings of my character. Using details of what they can see is a much less daunting process than attempting to recreate an entire world from scratch before they’ve stepped out of their front door. If I need to name a town or a city, etc. that tends to happen later on in the process when I have the time to consider the detail without it interrupting the writing flow. (If you have no option but to name a place as you write, I tend to use any word that I’m unlikely to use elsewhere in the story and then I swap it out later for the real name)

Anything your character can see has the potential to be in the story. That’s where you consider plot as you write. Are the muddy shoes by the door or the thriving plant in front of the window or the crack in the white paint on the ceiling going to lead to a larger plot point further on in the story? The details that a writer shares should paint a specific picture so that the reader sees the same framed image in the end.

Time has a lot of influence on the setting. From whether it is night or day to the year in which the story is set. There is a big difference in the way that time is presented in a historical setting compared to a contemporary setting. Again, detail is the key. The presence of a mobile phone or a lack of street lights will add a sense of time to the story very quickly. Creating a sense of time is the same as creating the place, the details left in should lead to a conclusion.

Every decision made about setting should have an impact on the final outcome but, as the writer it is extremely likely that you will be the only one who sees the pattern. Accepting the changes and taking responsibility for them is part of the craft. The reader walks along the paths that the writer created.

All five senses are important to think about when you’re presenting your reader with a setting that you want them to believe in. In real life we react to the world around us using smell, touch, taste, sight and sound and your character’s reactions to the world around them should be considered in the same way. The smell of warm cookies to prompt the feeling of nostalgia and the sound of the wind rustling the leaves on a tree as your character takes a walk can have as much purpose on the page as they do in real life.

I never make specific lists when I think about setting but I always consider the basics: outside or inside? warm or cold weather? familiar or unfamiliar? busy or deserted?

It’s fun to stretch the imagination and envision vast, complicated landscapes and societal systems but the small details will keep the story close to your character and, hopefully, keep your reader on the right trail.

In my experience, combining what I know of creating plot, character and setting can make up a story to be proud of. It gives me a starting point and a foundation and when you’re thinking of targets and word counts it’s nice to go back and be reminded of how the story started out. It adds some perspective to the whole process.


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