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Win Writing Awards By Creating A Strong Sense Of Place

Updated on July 10, 2011

A feeling of place is one of the most powerful ways to build characters and sharpen a story. Try these proven ideas to build a vibrant setting for your story and win writing award prizes.

What makes a successful story?

It’s easier to describe a failed story. A story may flop in many ways but typically it consists of a stream of dialogue or thoughts or actions - and little else. It has no sense of place.

Yet even a play demands a stage set, a background, so the reader understands the play’s context and can make sense of what's going on

Don’t overdo background details...

New writers misunderstand the need for background. They give us a thousand words of context but no story. Every flower in the florist shop is described. Every exam the character ever passed. Every kiss upon her first date...

No reader today will tolerate that

Setting is a great way to define a story’s mood, at the outset. But just a phrase or two will do it. Suppose the author wants to import a sense of a far away place, imbued with magic. “The lizard scampered up the sun-baked wall.” That’s all that’s needed. The reader doesn’t need a travel brochure.

Setting must be used for a purpose

But once that atmosphere has been established, it must be used for a purpose.

It does no harm to give the setting a twist. But make the twist too predictable and the reader will yawn. Maybe the tale opens with an enchanted setting? It hides horror. Predictable! Conversely, an ominous place is full of happy surprises? Yawn...

A clever ploy

A far more clever ploy is to use setting to misdirect the reader.

Present a beautiful place and the street-wise reader will suspect that some dark event will soon unfold. Suppose it does but... the place recovers its beauty in the last scene? And the frightening incident proves to be a blessing in disguise? It’s a double bluff. The surprised reader will applaud.

The top prizes in a major writing award often go to stories like that, which have a double spin at the end.

Use setting to define a character

Another powerful way to use setting is to display a character’s personality. How the characters react to their surroundings says a lot about them. For example, a car breaks down in a country lane. A truculent man might curse. Somebody else might take their time phoning for rescue. What a splendid chance to take a rest! And what a delightful view!

The task of setting at this point is simply to reinforce an element of personality. After that, its work is finished.

Settings can induce instant drama

To place a character in direct conflict with their setting is one of the corniest ploys of story telling, needless to say. But it has been the theme of successful stories since at least The Aeneid.

The Greek playwrights used this device to disclose a character's essential nature, which they thought was unchangeable. In these psychological days, we might use a hostile setting to reveal how a person's character changes in adversity.

The pathetic doormat reveals herself, under pressure, to be a robust heroine. Conversely, upon the moment that a blustering charlatan is presented with a serious challenge he collapses - into a doormat. Such character reversals may be a formula but the formula has produced many winners in writing awards.

A free writing course

More of this feature can be explored in a 14-week little 'university' of fiction writing tactics available at Writers' Village at no cost:


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    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 6 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Thanks, Anaya! More tips shall come... given encouragement :)

    • Anaya M. Baker profile image

      Anaya M. Baker 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks for this! I'm bookmarking it as a reference, some really great tips here :)

    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 6 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Thanks, Jaye

      That must be a world speed record for response to a new Hub! Perhaps we should write a story about it? :)

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 6 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Delightful hub,John! It's interesting as well as informative, particularly for someone striving to improve her fiction writing, as I am. I wouldn't be averse to winning an award along the way, either....

      I will take a look at Writers' Village and what it has to offer, particularly the "free writing ideas."