The setting of your story is more than a place where characters get into mischief and (possibly) get out again. To bring our stories alive and provide readers with a rich experience, we craft a setting with the choices we make. And there’s a lot more to setting than place.
As Clark mentioned in the episode, it’s easy to skimp on setting when you’re trying to get your story down. I’ve collected several setting components below and an exercise that when taken with the other great tips that Clark and Peter shared on the show will help you deepen your setting, making it worthy of your characters and story.
The setting includes geographic and political areas, but it also contains more specific places where the action takes place, like individual sites (a pond in the middle the woods), buildings (the family home on Monarch Drive), and rooms (the bathroom at the law firm where a dead body was discovered). Each place possesses distinct qualities that you can use to create mood, reveal character, and complicate the main conflict.
Your story also occurs within a larger time period (the Iron Age or Antebellum Period), but might be narrowed down to a single month of the year. For example, what your characters encounter in New York City in January would be different from July. The first Saturday in May in Louisville, Kentucky is different from the fourth Saturday.
When you decide on a place and time, you create boundaries around your story. You still have options, but your setting creates a structure, whether you’re writing in a realistic or fantastical world, with rules that help your reader acclimate. This seems obvious, but often we forget these elements when we outline the story and write the first draft. Nabakov was on to something when he said, “Caress the details, the divine detail.” The facets you include can bring a story to life and become the difference between one that reads well and one that is unputdownable.
How do place and time create structure?
Think about how different life was before mobile phones and computers. What about social media? Your YA character in 1957 will not be distracted by Twitter notifications unless your story involves time travel. And speaking of travel, how do people get from place to place? A chase scene with Barouche is quite different from one with a metro bus.
The accents and dialects of people who inhabit the story can reveal or support setting. Can the locals, even in a large town, identify a stranger based solely on the way he speaks? When someone drops their Rs, I often think fondly of New England where I worked with an attorney who would drive his ca to his lar office. What about words and phrases that are specific to a region? Do you say pop, soda, or coke when referring to carbonated beverages? You can also find colorful expressions in most locales, like bless your heart.
The government and politics of your place and time can impact your story as well. What kind of government exists? Can people openly disagree with people in power? Can women run for office or do the work they choose? Do children play and go to school or do they work?
The setting can do so much more than be the background of your story. It can support your story in subtle ways that will make your readers fall in love. I’ve crafted a mission to help you do just that.
Your Mission for the Week
Learning new aspects of the craft of writing is so beneficial, and I want to help you apply these lessons to your stories. Every week, I’ll include a mission to help you experiment with the topics you learn about on The Book Editor Show.
In this week’s episode, “7 tips to Strengthen Setting,” Clark and Peter gave you specific suggestions to improve this important element of your premise. Keep those tips and the questions I’ve posed above in mind as you dive into this week’s mission.
Make a list of the individual settings that appear in your story: the protagonist’s bedroom and office, the villain’s lair, the quarterdeck of an English man-of-war. Now spend ten to fifteen minutes freewriting about each location. Don’t know where to start? Write everything I know about … and keep going without stopping to revise. Your aim is to get to know the parts of your setting that you may have overlooked. Then for a twist, try everything I don’t know about … to approach the problem from a different angle.
Put your results away for a day or two and then read it. Any surprises? Did you discover additional details that you can add to your story to deepen your setting and make it richer? Do you have a better understanding of why your main character loves the hand-me-down furniture in the living room of her chic apartment? If your results were lackluster, try writing for a longer period of time. Play music that reminds you of your setting. Inhabit the world your characters do so that what you see in your mind’s eye makes it onto the page.
Now, take the fruits of your efforts and weave them into your existing story. Please come back and leave a comment to let us know at least one new detail you uncovered and how the exercise worked for you.
More about Leslie
Leslie Watts is an editor, author, blogger, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: a magazine about cats in sixth grade, staff writer for her college newspaper, editor-in-chief of her law journal, and journaling while writing for an appellate judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership with her writer pal. She lives in Austin, Texas with two rambunctious kids and her patient husband.
You can find more of Leslie’s writing and editing advice at Writership.com