Setting in fiction writing

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From my blog

The holy triumverate of writing a story: character, plot, and setting (although some would add theme, and style and I don’t necessarily disagree), is familiar. It is the flesh and bone of your creation. Your setting is the loom upon which you weave your tapestry; the characters are the thread and the plot is the pattern you are using. In many ways, setting is a character of its own, interacting with the people in your story, changing their decisions and affecting their personality. Pauline Hopkins, author ofContending Forces wrote: “And, after all, our surroundings influence our lives and characters as much as fate, destiny or any supernatural agency.” So what are some of the keys to writing setting well?

Setting is comprised of many things. It includes geographical location, historical period, culture, and physical surroundings. If your setting isn’t just every day life in the world we currently live in it could be any number of other places and times. It could be in the dystopian (or less used, utopian) future; it could be in virtual or simulated reality; it could be a mythical world you created or another planet. And each of these places and times have their own multifaceted reality.

Setting is more than just a backdrop, it is a living, breathing part of your story. If there is a chair, does it just sit in the corner? Or does your character sit in it, or smash it agains the wall in anger, or block the attack of a vicious animal with it? If it’s hot or rainy or foggy, do you just describe that, or does your character experience it and move within that environment?

Your setting should envelope all five senses – although not necessarily all at once. I’ve heard the rule that you should engage two or three senses when describing setting. Let’s use the idea of a fire for example. I’ve seen so many writers use the cliché of a “small, cheerful fire”. Why not be more in depth? What does the fire look like? Are there hungry crimson flames devouring the one large log on the hearth? Or has it nearly died and only a few blue flames tentatively glow from the embers? What does the fire sound like? A low crackle or a threatening roar? Smell? Depends on the kind of fire, but at least describe the smell of wood smoke or burning rubber, which might be the first indication your character has that there is a fire at all. Less used senses like touch and taste are sometimes my favorites. Does the fire warm the chilled skin and make your character drowsy, or is it such a large and hot fire that it’s uncomfortable to stand too close? Is there the acrid taste of smoke on your character’s tongue, or maybe she can almost taste the rabbit roasting over the fire and it makes her mouth water.

Another good habit is to sprinkle your setting throughout your story. Rarely does a real person stop when they get to a new place and mentally catalog all the sights and sounds of their environment. They notice it only as they interact with it. So as your character does his thing, intersperse interaction with his setting as you go. Stubbing his toe on the leg of a kitchen table here, getting dripped on by a leak in the ceiling there, smelling burnt toast, whatever part of your setting is most appropriate and interesting at the moment.

When you’ve written your story and you’re going back over your rough draft with setting in mind, ask yourself a few questions. Are my characters acting in a void where the effects of the setting (if I’ve described one at all) are almost completely ignored? Did I write one setting but have the characters interact with or describe something else? Was the setting accurate to the time and place I’ve set the story? If you’ve written a dynamic, tangible, and interesting environment that your characters interact with instead of moving in front of, then you’ve reached your goal. You will be able to draw your reader into the story because they won’t just have an idea of where your characters are, but they’ll be able to imagine it fully and be interested in all the ways your character is wrapped up in it. 

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