How to Write the Setting for a Story
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.
- 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.
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.
As the sun went down, the sky turned red.
We sat around the campfire. It smelled smoky.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.