Building Your Story’s Stage: Why Strong Setting Matters
Setting is more than a backdrop for your story. It is a sensory experience for your reader, obstacles for your characters, and a huge component in determining genre. Some readers choose a book because of its setting. More than time and place, setting is the ecological environment, societal system, and space your characters and plot exist within, so use it to your advantage.
What Is Setting
According to Merriam-Webster a setting is “the time, place, and circumstances in which something occurs or develops.” What this means for creative writing – both fiction and nonfiction – is everything from the time of day to the climate to the culture.
I like to think of setting in three big chunks: time and place, environment, and society. Each of these needs to be addressed regardless of genre to provide context for your characters and events. When you fully develop your setting and allow it to influence your story is when your setting impacts and lingers with your reader.
Setting Is Time and Space
One of the first aspects of setting your reader needs is the time and date. These go a long way in helping your reader imagine your story. A character walking down a dirt road at noon in the spring today is a very different scene from a character walking down a dirt road at midnight in the middle ages in winter. By stating the time and date, you are creating the foundation for your reader’s mental picture of your story.
The next part of setting your reader needs is where your characters are in your world. By this I mean are they in their bedroom, a meadow, or a spaceship? What is the immediate setting? Combined with the date and time, this space establishes your genre and whether or not your characters are currently being threatened by the setting. In the first sentence of Watermelon Snow by William A. Liggett, readers know the space is dangerous:
The thick layers of ice groaned and let out a deafening crack (1).
Two of Liggett’s main characters are collecting samples from an ice tunnel in a glacier in this scene. For them, ice cracking could be deadly.
The best way to develop the space aspect of your setting is to have your characters interact with it like Liggett does. Your characters don’t have to be collecting ice samples on a glacier. They could knock their coffee cup over, put the last tile in place on their kids’ playhouse, or run into the inn to escape the sleet. Regardless of your type of story, readers need to know when and where they are immediately in most scenes.
Setting Is Environment
Environment is the larger part of the physical space of your setting. This includes natural aspects like climate; temperature; flora and fauna; natural resources such as rivers, crops, oil, and minerals; and weather. It also includes man-made structures like cities and towns, roads, buildings, tunnels, and parks.
Your environment directly impacts the stakes of your characters’ situations. A character caught in a snow storm in a modern city might be inconvenienced, while a character caught in a snow storm in the Rocky Mountains in the 1800’s might die. Through stakes, setting can drive your plot and influence your pacing.
The environmental aspect of your setting can also deepen and reveal something about your characters. In Kate Jonuska’s short story “Prince Charming” from Proof: A 30th Street Fiction Anthology, the setting’s environment is established in the first few lines and is crucial to the plot and characters:
The Blue Moon RV Park slides into view around a bend of the shallow canyon, looking like the least likely place on Earth to find a prince. . . The campground’s sign, faded in the New Mexico sun, is flaking off in strips, and behind it a widening of canyon holds a grove of lucky trees (117).
The isolation of this place reveals how the prince is different, how he values privacy and doesn’t live for the adoration and attention like others of his kind. The setting also shows how far the main character is willing to travel to reach her goals.
When developing and choosing the environment of your setting, make sure it provides opportunities for you to deepen your characters and advance your plot. What obstacles might your climate present? What does your character’s neighborhood say about their station and likes?
Setting Is Society
The final aspect of setting is the one many people don’t think of as setting: your story’s traditions, cultures, beliefs, religions, politics, and history. Your story’s population and its affects are a part of your setting just like the environment.
How your characters fit into your society determines their resources, worries, stakes, and desires. If the queen of your country is caught stealing a cookie from a bakery, she will probably not face any consequences, but if a ten-year-old girl steals a cookie, she could have her hand cut off. The queen might steal for pleasure. The girl might steal for survival. Your characters’ motivations and stakes will be directly impacted by their place in society.
In The Lucky Hat Mine by J.v.L Bell, the main character braves a trip across North America’s plains in 1863 to answer a wife wanted ad. Millie discovers her fiancé has been murdered upon her arrival. As one of only a handful of women in the area, she is a hot commodity and continuously bombarded with proposals – some sweet, some sour. Millie’s place in the Colorado territory’s society both gives her a small amount of power and puts her in danger.
When building your setting, don’t forget to incorporate your story’s society and where your character fits in it or doesn’t. Determine your character’s station and beliefs and show whether or not these are in alignment with the majority of the population.
Why a Professional Editor Believes in Strong Settings
A strong setting is one that has been fleshed out. Whether your story takes place on another planet, in another era, or in modern Las Angeles, you need to incorporate your setting. Your reader should be able to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste your world. Through tone, atmosphere, and mood, they should associate emotions with your setting. Specific details like dates, weather, and religious beliefs make your setting feel real and believable. Your setting is not just the canvas for your story; it is a part of the picture. Use time and place, environment, and society to Ignite Your Ink.
What’s a setting you find yourself returning to in your stories? Being from New Mexico, I tend to incorporate deserts in my tales. For more weekly writing tips and a free Guide to Creating Strong Settings, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.