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 includes the basic surroundings, the era, or the moment the story occupies, and it often has its own personality.
Once we identify our setting, we must flesh it out with sensory detail. The senses allow us to set moods, evoke feelings and trigger memories.
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.
- Culture. How do laws, taboos, social mores, 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?
- Geography. Mountains, desserts, volcanoes, farmland, vegetation, animals, oceans, lakes, and seas all colour the background.
- 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.
- Weather. Rain, drought, fog, snow, sunshine, high or low temperatures, storms – all of these affect your story.
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.
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 the environment. The loss of an animal changes the setting completely.
- Changes in society. A change in attitudes, laws, or politics could alter a setting. The location of a business that depends on a law being passed may be destroyed when it isn’t.
- 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.
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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