Writers Write is your one-stop writing resource and we have put together a list of 12 crucial things for you to remember about setting in storytelling.
In this post we cover what setting is, 7 details to include in your settings, and 5 ways to use setting to advance a plot.
What Is Setting?
Setting is defined as the physical location and time of a story. It acts as a story’s backbone. Nobody exists in a vacuum. We all do things somewhere. Setting in storytelling includes the basic surroundings, the era, or the moment the story occupies, and it often has its own personality.
We should introduce our main settings in the beginning of the book. Readers like to feel comfortable with the places you are going to use. In fact, they have been known to abandon books where a strange setting is introduced in the last quarter of a book.
12 Crucial Things To Remember About Setting In Storytelling
7 Details To Include In Setting
- Place. Where does the story take place? This could be a planet, a country, a city, a building, a forest, a ship, a spaceship, an island, or one room in a house. Make sure the reader is grounded in this space.
- Culture. How do laws, taboos, social mores (essential customs and conventions of a society or community), politics, sport, religious practices, education, wars, and technology set the scene?
- Era. When does your story happen? During the violence of the anti-apartheid riots of the ‘70s and ‘80s? When the first white settlers arrived in the Cape of Good Hope in the 1650s? Do some research if you are writing a story set in another time.
- Geography. Mountains, desserts, volcanoes, farmland, vegetation, animals, oceans, lakes, and seas all colour the background. Good authors understand that character is setting and setting is character. This is obvious when we see how where we grow up shapes us.
- Things. These include pets, possessions, items in shops, landmarks, road signs – anything your character is able to touch, see, hear, smell, or taste.
- Time. This could be an hour, a day, a season, a year, or a lifetime. Create a timeline to help you contain your story.
- Weather. Rain, drought, fog, snow, sunshine, high or low temperatures, storms – all of these affect your story. Use weather details to affect your story’s mood and for foreshadowing.
While it is obvious that setting adds layers to our story, provides the framework for the story, and affects our characters, we often overlook the role setting can have in moving a plot forward.
Writers do this by using the ‘change factor’. Human beings don’t like change. Change takes us out of our comfort zones and our primary comfort zone is our environment. Our characters are the same.
5 Ways To Use Setting To Advance A Plot
- Reveal something that was previously hidden. The beautiful mountains behind a town might not be as stable as everyone thinks. An unspoilt park becomes a nightmare when the family walking their dog find a dislodged sign that says ‘Keep Out. Venomous Snakes.’
- Create an outside threat to the environment. You can do this with weather. A bad storm could prevent a character from achieving a goal. You can do this with religion. A cult may have set up its headquarters in the area, forever changing the town. You can do this with technology. A technical error could shut down the electricity supply to hotel.
- Remove possessions or pets. If a character loses something or has something stolen, it will affect their environment. The loss of an animal changes the setting completely. This is a perfect way to get your character to react in a physical and emotional manner.
- Changes in society. A change in attitudes, laws, or politics could alter a setting in storytelling. The location of a business that depends on a law being passed may be destroyed when it isn’t. The right to own property might be changed by a political decision. Society might decide not to accept a certain sexual orientation and ostracise that person.
- Move your character into an alien environment. You could move the character out of her family home into a studio apartment or she could simply take the wrong train home. Whatever you do, make sure she is uncomfortable and that the situation creates uncertainty and conflict.
Changes in setting do not have to be pivotal to the plot, but they can help an author who wants to advance a story without using direct confrontations with other characters to do so.
© Amanda Patterson
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