Stronger Storytelling through Setting

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As writers, we’re familiar with the importance of setting, the where and when of the story we’re telling. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, are grounded in a realistic world or an imaginary one, setting can do a lot more than provide a backdrop for your story. In this post, we explore some of the different ways you can use setting to your advantage.

Say something about your characters

The setting in which the people in your story act is not just the background; there are elements within it that your characters can engage with and react to. Sometimes a place and time are a good fit for the character and sometimes they are not. The goodness of fit can communicate things about your character—what drives him/her, what s/he struggles with. What a character notices about a setting can also convey meaning. Here is Pip from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens describing his environment:

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders' webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.

Another character or writer might romanticize the coastal marshes. Pip’s description, with reference to goblins, spiders’ webs, and a phantom shows that this land where he is growing up feels scary and unsafe to him.

The passage of time

Writers can use a description of setting to convey the passage of time or decay without having to compare it to an earlier time. In this example, also from Great Expectations, Pip enters Miss Havisham’s dressing room for the first time.

It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow.

Setting can be a character or serve as conflict in the story

The setting can be a full-fledged character in its own right, creating conflict with the protagonist. In Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire,” the cold environment of the Klondike serves as both character and conflict.

But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

This passage sets up the conflict between the man and the arctic setting. In a more temperate climate, building a fire could make a person more comfortable, but not necessarily mean surviving the night.

Set the mood

The setting is an easy way to create the mood for your story. Compare these two descriptions from Neil Gaiman in American Gods and Henry Thoreau in Walden.

The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.

In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantage of human neighborhood insignificant.

Both descriptions convey dampness: one is creepy, close, and uncomfortable; the other is fresh, open, and peaceful

Show contrast

Setting can show contrast between the character and place, but also between different places. Writers can demonstrate changes in characters by showing how they respond in different environments. In JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, we see how Harry is treated as an unwanted inconvenience at his Aunt and Uncle’s home on Privet Drive; he lives in a cupboard under the stairs and keeps to himself as much as possible. When he is at Hogwarts, he has close friends and is a gifted athlete and leader.

Play around with setting

We urge you to experiment with setting by taking a character of your own or one from a story you’ve read and putting him or her in a completely different setting.  How does the character respond? How does it change the conflict? How is it the same? What interesting things happen? We invite you to share your experience with us in the comments below.

/Leslie