by Kristen Coros
This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal.
Every story we write takes place somewhere. In addition, good books, stories or vignettes tend to be immersive, drawing us irresistibly into the world in which they occur. This is why, as writers, we ought to pay attention to place—often called setting—in fiction.
An easy way to frustrate a reader is to give them no indication of where or when a story or scene is taking place. Conversely, an easy way to delight them is to ground fiction in an intriguing atmosphere, which is the combined result of setting and tone (which itself includes things like voice and rhythm).
In some stories and novels, setting is so dominant that it becomes a character in the story. Think of Stephen King’s snowed-in Overlook Hotel in The Shining, or J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, in which workings of the story’s world directly affect plot. Not every work will go this far to develop place, but every writer might consider the following ways in which setting can help to give fiction deep, vibrant life.
Setting is a way to incorporate concrete detail.
As discussed in this post, specific, concrete detail helps writing to come to life in the mind’s eye of the reader. This is an opportunity to avoid cliché or blandness, to give your story its own flavour. If I write a piece set in New York, as have so many before me, the setting can still feel fresh and unique if I describe the not the typical landmarks and places, but the unique and particular things my characters encounter and notice—the odd decor of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, maybe, or the scents mingling in the air of a subway car on one particular morning.
Setting helps to shape and develop character.
Where do your people come from?
I’m asking about your characters. Each of them has grown up in one or more places that has shaped them, perhaps because they were so completely a part of these settings that they could conceive of no other way of life, or because they wished to leave or otherwise acted against the place in which they found themselves.
A contrast between person and setting can work to throw character into relief. A character might feel completely comfortable in a dangerous part of town at night, or distinctly uncomfortable in a place most of us might think of as innocuous (e.g., a library or pet store). As readers we tend to squirm with pleasurable anticipation when there is a clash between character and setting—a loudmouth about to enter a quiet and “respectful” environment, maybe—or when we can see that a character misperceives the environment in which they find themselves.
Furthermore, in describing the spaces a person inhabits, we sketch their character. What kind of things does (or doesn’t?) your character’s apartment contain—what have they chosen for their kitchen cupboards or their coffee table? This is a great opportunity to show instead of telling. I don’t need to explain that Anne is messy and disorganized if I show the week-old coffee mugs on her desk or the way her car’s interior is awash in takeaway wrappers.
Setting can help to express emotion.
Another opportunity to show instead of tell comes in how characters react to places. When setting evokes emotion, we can avoid having to report on it directly.
This applies to both variable and static aspects of setting. Consider weather: how your character responds to it can provide a clue to their emotions. To a person who is happy or in love, the summer sun may feel like a warm caress, whereas to someone who is depressed, it may feel overly bright and assaultive. Objects can also hold emotions: perhaps a familiar houseplant or painting on the wall takes on terrible features as a character processes bad news.
Setting shapes and echoes thematic concerns.
Theme is broadly defined as what a story or piece is “about”, and the place in which something occurs has some bearing on this. If the setting of your piece is a place of abject poverty, or fervent religiosity, or extreme racial tension, then most likely your work will end up saying something about these topics.
Putting it together, and an exercise
Given all of the above, here are some questions to ask about your setting:
- How do the places in this work shape or describe my characters, and how do my characters harmonize or clash with these places?
- Am I using concrete, specific details to evoke setting, and (especially if your piece is written in first-person) are these details the sort my character would notice?
- How might my characters’ reactions to the setting reflect their emotions?
The following exercise, adapted from Janet Burroway’s Creating Fiction, might help you to focus on setting. It could result in a compelling vignette!
Describe a place where a character feels trapped. Instead of an obvious place, like a jail cell, dentist’s chair, or elevator, try to make your choice of setting less obvious—an RV, an amusement park, a wedding rehearsal, or a library. Use sensory details to suggest your character’s discomfort, claustrophobia, and dread.