How to Write the Setting for a Story

Tips for Crafting Good Fictional Landscapes
Tips for Crafting Good Fictional Landscapes | Source

Introduction

What is it that generates the compelling magic of great stories? How can mere words so hypnotize us that we will push forward for page after page and hour after hour, losing touch with the outer world? Somehow, hidden in the mystery of the way great writers craft their words, they are able to create vivid personal experiences so powerful that we sometimes remember them as if they were our own. This is the deep literary experience every writer seeks to create.

This article focuses on uncovering one piece of this mystery: understanding setting. It begins by explaining a general, but essential, framework for crafting setting in fiction. It then covers a series of specific tips for writing setting that any writer can use to create engaging and richly detailed settings.

The Power of Sensory Detail

As a writing teacher, I frequently see stories that have little to no description of setting at all. I will read about characters who might be hiking on a mountain trail or sitting in the living room of a house or standing in the lobby of a bank. This, however, is where the setting description ends, and such vague generalities lack the specific detail necessary to create a vivid experience for the reader.

Story writers must understand that reality in fiction, just as it is in life, is defined by direct sensory detail. Every memory you have, no matter how exciting or beautiful or scary or passionate it might be, is grounded in the direct sensory experiences that surround it. The smell of your mother’s perfume, or the quilted pattern of red and tan on the couch you were looking at when you heard that your grandfather passed away, or that tiny mole just below your lovers left eye—these are the kinds of subtle mental images of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell that sustain memory, helping to make these experiences real.

It is essential that story writers recognize this and use it to their advantage. Consider the difference between these two passages. The first is written by me. The second was written by Charles Dickens. Both describe the same scene, but mine is purposefully crafted in vague generalities where Dickens paints his description in vivid and specific sensory-based detail:

My generalized paraphrase (with sincerest apologies to Dickens):

Two horses labored up a hill, hauling a coach on a cold and foggy night. The fog was really thick.

This description sets a frame and lets you know what’s going on, but in no way does it invite you into the experience as a reader. Conceptually, you can see it, but there is nothing there that invites you to feel it. Now experience the craft of Dickens:

From A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens:

There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the laboring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.

Now this writing is full of words we can see and touch and feel, pulling you into the experience. Indeed, by the end of the paragraph, one can almost feel the cold fog surrounding you.

Remember, there is great power in crafting subtle sensory detail.

The wrong way to craft setting in a story:

When crafting setting for your story, never…

  • ignore it: …setting is an essential tool writer’s use to craft vivid reading experiences for their readers. To write a story without giving focused attention to the details of when and where the action takes place diminishes the reader’s ability to engage meaningfully with the piece.

The Setting is a Mess
The Setting is a Mess | Source
  • address it briefly using vague adjectives and emotional labels: …setting cannot be taken lightly. Presenting setting with phrases like, “they were in a scary house,” is a guaranteed gateway to mediocre prose. Both “scary” and “house” have so many different interpretations that they are near to useless for building an experience for your reader. Instead of telling your reader it's scary, actually scare the reader with the frightening details of what the house looks like.
  • over do it: …setting descriptions must be present and felt, but only in so much as they serve to deepen the ongoing plot of the story. How much is too much is largely a matter of opinion, but if you find yourself writing on for pages about a river valley that only appears for a moment in your story, there’s a good chance you’ve gone too far.

How and when do I add setting into my story?

  • Setting descriptions are excellent as openers to a story, chapter, or scene, allowing the author to establish not only time and place, but also a sense of mood and tone.
  • Never be afraid to interrupt the action of a story to spend a little time on setting. The writer must always make intelligent choices about where such breaks make sense in the rhythm of the story, but not making them at all is a huge mistake.

Getting the Setting Organized
Getting the Setting Organized | Source

Think Broadly

Great writers are always conscious of the subtle relationships that setting shares with character, plot, mood, and tone. The very best stories are those in which all of these things are seamlessly integrated together. This deep level of integration allows for some very creative possibilities in ways to use setting:

  • As a reflection of character mood: …in The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, his description of the Congo river becomes a foil for the moods and thoughts of Marlowe, the protagonist, adding a deep darkness to the overall mood of the piece.
  • As a personified character: in The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, the house itself is described in such a way that it takes on a will of its own, eventually claiming a central place as an independent character within the story.
  • As a driving element of the plot: …in The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells, elements of the setting become the mysteries that the Time Traveler feels compelled to investigate, eventually leading to his discovery of mankind’s horrific legacy.

The right way to add setting to a story:

When crafting setting for your story, intentionally try to…

  • use rich descriptive language: ...strive to use language that is as precise as possible.

Bad Examples:

As the sun went down, the sky turned red.

We sat around the campfire. It smelled smoky.

Good Examples:

The sky glowed an angry crimson as twilight came to a close.

Sitting around the large campfire, I breathed in the heartwarming smell of cedar wood.

  • use a variety of senses: ...do not limit your sensory descriptions only to the visual; incorporate sounds, smells, textural descriptions, and even tastes whenever possible.

Limited Example (visual only):

In the club, filled with hundreds of people dancing, Tom saw shadows cast around the walls by dozens of shifting prismatic dance lights.

Expansive Example (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic):

In the club, filled with the warm press of dancing bodies, Tom saw shadows cast around the wall by dozens of shifting prismatic dance lights. They moved in time to the music that was playing so loud he could feel its pulse in his chest with every thrum of the beat.

  • point out small details: …the fabric of life is woven together with the threads of minor details. Mentioning how one knife at the table was slightly off-set or how the sunlight shown down in broken fragments through the cracked window is a very effective way to give your writing the same kind of subtle detail that brings real experiences to life.

Good Example:

Slowly, the twilight moved across the room as it has always done, finally to reveal a picture of an elderly couple prominently displayed on top of the black grand piano.

  • use lists to add thoughtful depth: …one of the best ways to describe a place is to present a list of its various attributes. Well crafted lists allow the reader to visualize a wide array of details and consider their relevance to the larger story.

Example (from Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White)

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell--as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and new rope (White 13).

  • use figurative language to add emotional content: …similes, metaphors, and personification give writers a powerful tool for communicating the emotional mood and tone of a given setting. In the Dickens excerpt, the way the mist moves “…like an evil spirit,” and “…as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do,” add significant depth to the reader’s experience. Use figurative language as often as possible!

Good Example:

And somewhere off in the corner, buried deep beneath the shadows in a dusty old cigar box, lay the long-forgotten ring that was never given, smiling to itself.

Conclusion

Following these guidelines will move you forward as writer in your ability to craft rich and engaging stories that your readers will remember for years to come.

Works Cited:

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Ed. Judith Boss. Project Gutenberg. 1994. <http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/98/pg98.txt>

White, E.B. Charlotte's Web. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1952.


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Comments 38 comments

alliemacb profile image

alliemacb 4 years ago from Scotland

Useful. I will definitely use the advice here with my students. Voted up and useful


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Alliemacb,

Thanks so much for stopping in. I hope they find it valuable!

wayseeker


Cre8tor profile image

Cre8tor 4 years ago from Ohio

Great hub. There is some very useful info in here that not only is useful to me but for my kids who are writing papers all the time in school. Thanks for sharing.


Kadmiels profile image

Kadmiels 4 years ago from Florida

wonderful examples of detailing the story.. Just never overdo it like anne rice she even describes the stiching in the chair :)


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Cre8tor,

Thanks so much. I'm glad the info seems useful, and I tried to design it to be useful for anyone writing a story of any age. I appreciate you taking the time to read!

wayseeker


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Kadmeils,

I'm glad the examples worked. I didn't have space to include it, but my favorite example of "that WAY too much" comes from one of my favorite books: "Les Mis" by Victor Hugo. The story is just marvelous, but, at one point, he takes almost 100 pages to describe a convent--just a bit over the top. He does the same when describing how Paris looks from the top of Notre Dame in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Great writer, but a little indulgent at times.

Thanks for taking the time to read,

wayseeker


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco

This is so helpful! I'm not at all adept at crafting stories and have been wanting to improve. Thanks for getting me up to speed on the setting front! I love the way you've broken everything down and your images are awesome. Oh, and the Dickens demonstration definitely elicited a giggle.


aa lite profile image

aa lite 4 years ago from London

This is very useful, and the examples are great to illustrate what you mean. I have started writing and any help on how to get the 'mechanics' right is very useful.


Sadie14 profile image

Sadie14 4 years ago from U.S.

Wow! Awesome tips! This is really useful information. We learned about it in school years ago and it's good to get back in touch with these subjects to help your writing. Voted up!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Thanks so much, Simone. Fiction is one of my first loves in writing, so I'm pleased that it will be useful to you. I will have more hubs on fiction writing coming out soon.

Best,

wayseeker


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

AA,

I very much appreciate you taking the time to read, and I do hope that you will find the information useful. It's definitely a never-ending journey in terms of learning how to make this work well. Everyone starts somewhere, though!

Happy Hubbing!

wayseeker


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Sadie,

Thanks so much for reading. There's no question that the things we learn in school get fuzzy very quickly. I've found that teaching writing is a significant help to actually doing it. Of course, actually doing it is also essential to teaching it well.

Thanks again for your time, and happy writing to you!

wayseeker


summerberrie 4 years ago

watseeker, I loved your original artwork. It is neat what can be created with just the right words. The contents in the beginning works really nicely.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Summerberrie,

Thanks for stopping in to read! I'm finding creating original artwork to be fun, though it takes more time than I'd like. I don't have all that much time to begin with, and I need to be churning out the writing! Still, I want it to be good, so taking time is not such a bad thing.

Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment.

wayseeker


Danareva profile image

Danareva 4 years ago from Miami

I also teach writing classes and agree with much of what you wrote...one of my main challenges is getting students to break away from vague descriptions and relying soley on the visual. I love a setting that gets caught in my hair, lingers in the room, and leaves an aftertaste... Great hub!


FaithDream profile image

FaithDream 4 years ago from (Midwest) USA

This article was well written and so timely. The information given is so valuable. I'm working on a story now, and setting is something I tend to ignore. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

You've given me some food for thought. Thanks!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

FaithDream,

I'm so pleased that it might serve to help you craft a richer fiction. I dearly love stories, both reading them and writing them. Setting is easy to overlook, but can be a great joy to craft as well. I love how the words shape reality inside that fictional space...enjoy it!

Thanks so much for taking the time to read,

wayseeker


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Danareva,

What a wonderful way to describe great writing..."getting caught in your hair, lingering in the room, and leaving an aftertaste!" I'd love to read one of your stories sometime as you clearly have a great sense of rich description. I do hope that there are some things of value in this piece, and if it can serve to bring a little more depth to even one person's story, then it was time well invested.

Sincere thanks for taking the time to read,

wayseeker


habee profile image

habee 4 years ago from Georgia

Wonderful advice! Dickens could really "put you there," couldn't he? BTW, I was a teacher, too. (Brit Lit/writing)

Voted up!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Habee,

Thanks so much for taking some time out to read. I'm looking forward to getting to the weekend when I should have more time to read myself--you've a number of pieces I look forward to spending a bit of time with!

wayseeker


cocopreme profile image

cocopreme 4 years ago from Far, far away

I love the pictures on this hub! You give some really good, concrete examples of what to do and what not to do. I will have to keep this in mind when writing stories. You mentioned my pet peeve when reading stories, overdoing descriptions of the setting. Nice hub!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Cocopreme,

Thanks so much for the positive feedback. I'm glad that folks are finding it useful, and I completely agree with the pet peeve. I read the entirety of the 500 pages of The Hunchback and the 1200 pages of Les Mis...except for the obnoxious descriptions I didn't need!

Thanks again for taking the time to read,

wayseeker


Autodidact 4 years ago

It's / its confusion in one of your examples. Doesn't help lend authority to your point.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Autodidact,

This is true. Thanks for the pointer--now corrected!

wayseeker


Robin profile image

Robin 4 years ago from San Francisco

This is a great guide for teachers and parents. Thanks for breaking it down so well!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Robin,

Thanks for stopping in! I'm pleased that folks are finding it easy to follow.

My best to you,

wayseeker


SayHI 4 years ago

Great posting.Before I was not sure how to explain to my kid his writing was not good even though he tried to use many adjectives.You pointed it out for me. They are 'vague'. Your posting is just like a lightbulb for me. Thanks a lot.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

SayHI,

What a wonderful comment. It is a blessing to me to hear that the work has been valuable for you. My sincere thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

wayseeker


Joyette  Fabien profile image

Joyette Fabien 4 years ago from Dominica

Good job wayseeker! I like the fact that you juxtaposed the good against the bad examples of setting to illustrate your points. That was most effective! Voted up.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Hey Joyette,

Sincere thanks for stopping in to read, and I hope that you found something helpful for you here. I've had several folks mention how helpful examples are, so I try to include them in most everything I write. I just wish I had a little more time to do creative writing...Oh, well. That time will come again soon.

My best to you in your writing work, and thanks again for stopping in,

wayseeker


Mekenzie profile image

Mekenzie 4 years ago from Michigan

This information about writing is just what I have been looking for. I can't believe I've found a writing teacher on the hubs. Please know that your expertise is of great value. Many writers here on the hubs long to share and communicate with well crafted words.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share these valuable tools for writing. I truly appreciate this hub and I thank you! Voted Up and all across!

Mekenzie


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Mekenzie,

Thanks so very much for your enthusiasm! I am hoping to write more hubs of this kind in the future, so this helps to give me hope that there are those that will find them to be of value. May the tools serve you well, and I hope to see a story from you sometime!

wayseeker


Rodric29 profile image

Rodric29 2 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

I enjoyed reading this hub. I was drawn in because of the great advice and the confirmation that description is key! My spouse told me once that a book that I was working to publish was too descriptive. Me, being the obsessive person that I am, took her criticism and almost stripped the book of all its trappings. I have published the book, self-published and now wish that I have included more. My next book will be more descriptive. Thanks.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 2 years ago from Colorado Author

Rodric29,

There is certainly a level of balance that must be maintained. Student writers tend not to include description at all. Beginning writers are likely to over do it (I know I certainly did). I still struggle with the balance, but a rich world cannot be created without it.

That said, I still can't get over the 50-100 pages Victor Hugo used to describe the look of Paris from the top of the Notre Dame Cathedral or the convent in Les Miserables. His books are some of my favorites, but that's a little over the top!

Thanks so much for stopping in to read,

Bert


astroboy31 profile image

astroboy31 23 months ago from Nepal

Thanks! I wisely spend reading your hub.thanks again


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 23 months ago from Colorado Author

Astroboy31,

I hope you find it helpful!

Bert


aesta1 profile image

aesta1 22 months ago from Ontario, Canada

Love your use of both bad and good examples to elucidate the point. Love your illustrations, too. Great hub.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 22 months ago from Colorado Author

aesta1,

Thank you for taking the time to read. I hope it is helpful!

Bert

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