Building Your Story's Setting

Robert Louis Stevenson: An author should know his setting, whether real or imaginary, like his hand.

Character and plot are the most important parts of a story, but setting comes a close third. This comprehensive article shows you how to build it right.

A strong setting is almost like a character in its own right. It has heart and soul, different moods, the ability to change, an influence on people and events.

And so it's really no coincidence that you build a story's setting in exactly the same way that you create the characters...

  • First, you take the time to get to know it (as well as you know your own neighborhood).
  • Then, when you start to write, you can't help but bring it to life on the page.

Before we cover the "how to" steps, though, we first need to understand...

What Exactly Is Setting?

Setting is the backdrop against which the characters act out the events. A story with a poorly-portrayed setting is like a play on a bare stage. You have character and plot (the important parts) but no sense of place.

And that's kinda dull for your readers!

Setting matters, then. And in order to make it as atmospheric as you can, you need to make it multi-dimensional.

How? By understanding that a story's setting extends way beyond houses and streets and trees. Here are the different elements...

1. The Central Location

In most cases, this will be the city or town or village in which the story takes place...

  • If the location is large, like London, you'll probably want to home-in on a district within it – Notting Hill, say.
  • If the location is a small town, it will be the perfect size to act as the primary focus of a novel.

But stories don't have to be set in traditional "communities." In a seafaring novel, for example, the central location will be the ship. In others, it might be a desert, an airplane or a space station.

Think about the time, or period, too. A novel set in contemporary Boston will be very different to one set there 10 or 20 or 100 years ago (not least because a period setting will take a lot more research to get the details right).

Dig deeper...

Your setting doesn't have to be a real place, of course. It could just as easily be fictional. And in some genres, like fantasy, a fictional location is pretty much essential.

Click here for more on real vs. imaginary settings.

2. The Wider Geography

Next, think about what's beyond your central location. It can make a huge difference to the story. For example...

  • A small town surrounded by lakes and forests will have a very different atmosphere to one surrounded by heavy industry.
  • A story set aboard a ship in the North Atlantic will be entirely different to one set in the South Pacific.

Whatever it is that surrounds your central location or community, it will act as more than just a pretty (or an ugly) backdrop. The characters will travel to it, too, or be affected by it in some way. So be sure to make the wider geography "fit" the story you want to tell.

If a young boy goes missing, for example, do you want to have the other characters search for him in a spooky forest, on a barren moorland, or in the bad part or the city?

3. Particular Buildings, Etc.

Okay, we've covered the big elements of setting. Let's zoom in now...

Some locations within the overall setting will be more important than others, such as...

  • the leading character's home
  • the office where she works
  • the park where she eats her lunch.

Needless to say, devote the bulk of your "setting building" time to these key locations, because they'll be where most of your story's scenes are set.

Sometimes, these "primary locations" will select themselves. If you set your novel in a newspaper office, for example, that's your main location right there.

Where you have a greater number of locations, with no one being especially more important than the others, try hard to make each one distinctive and memorable somehow, to stop them all blending in to each other.

So if you set your story in an apartment block, for example, in which three of the apartments are key locations, make each one stand out by...

  • giving one a stylish art deco interior
  • making another smell permanently of marijuana
  • giving the third a dog that yaps day and night.

Much more interesting than using three apartments that you can't tell apart, right? Just make sure that each one matches its owner!

4. The Flora and Fauna

Most novels make some mention of nature, if only to describe the leaves falling off the oak trees or the sound of bird song.

The more rural the setting, the more you'll need to mention the natural world to add realism to the story. But even big cities have cats and foxes and trees and spiders.

Also remember that authenticity is important. The animal sounds you hear at night in Montana are very different from the ones you hear in New York. So get your facts straight!

If the natural world isn't your thing, still try to mention it occasionally (because your novel will be missing something if you don't), but don't sweat the details...

Make your central character someone who, like you, isn't that interested in nature. That way, when you do mention it, you can talk in general terms ("the damn birds woke Joe up at six o'clock again") rather than technical terms – because the character wouldn't know what the birds are called.

Of course, if you love the natural world and you're something of an expert on the wildlife and plant life in your chosen location, indulge yourself!

5. The Weather

This one, I suppose, is linked to the last – though it's generally a far more important tool to add atmosphere to a story.

A scene that takes place at midday during a heat wave will be very different from the same scene set at midnight with a snow storm blowing in.

Again, don't forget that different places have different weather patterns. If you're familiar with them, fine. If not, do some research. If June is the rainy season in your city, you need to make it rain – or else talk about how the rains are late this year.

Dig deeper...

Want to learn more about writing about the weather – why it's important and how to do it?

I wrote this article just for you!

6. Activities and Occupations

This is where we depart from the tangible elements of settings and look at them in a much wider, much looser way.

If your principal character is a lawyer or a farmer or a detective, for example, the details of how these jobs are performed are as much a part of the "setting" as the physical office or farm or police station in which the characters work.

Describing the physical characteristics of a farm – the land, the buildings, and so on – is just one aspect of its setting. Describing how to fix a broken tractor or how to harvest pumpkins adds an extra, and perhaps a more interesting, dimension.

And activities and occupations, of course, also apply to what characters do for a hobby...

  • restoring classic cars
  • breeding tropical fish
  • solving cryptic crosswords.

7. Local Customs, History, Folklore, Etc.

Fairs and carnivals and other local events are another great way of adding dimension to your story. The local cuisine can be interesting, too, as can the way a town treats strangers, or how it celebrates New Year.

In short, any custom or event that is unique to the part of the world in which your story is set is like gold dust to you. And, no, it doesn't have to be real...

Want to add spice to your novel? Invent a local custom!

8. Soul

This final element of a story's setting applies to everything I've talked about so far. And it's simply a way of giving certain aspects of the setting a kind of "X-factor."

Take the central character's car, for example (yes, cars are a part of the setting as well)...

Describing it as a 1954 Cadillac with a dent in the hood is a good start. But it remains an inanimate object. Saying that the car wanders all over the road at will, and that its owner has to wrestle with the wheel to keep it on course, begins to humanize the car.

Or make the car a kind of "best friend" to the character. Say that he likes to sit in the car at times of stress because it's the only place in the world he feels at peace. And unlike all the other characters, his car listens to him but never answers back!

It's little "soul-giving" touches like this that can take a boring setting in a story and turn it into something unique and alive.

Another example...

Describing a town's main street in loving detail will give your story atmosphere and authenticity. But if you also mention that the street is haunted by the ghost of an eight-year-old girl who was killed by a reversing cement truck 50 years ago to the day – that adds some serious soul to your story!

Dig deeper...

Before you can hope to add "soul" to your setting, you need to know it intimately – love it, even. And, yes, that's true whether it's a real place or one you've made up.

In short, you'll only bring a setting to life is it somehow makes you feel more alive. For more on that, check this out...

Does Your Setting Inspire You?

Okay, that's dealt with the "what." Now for the "how to" steps. We'll start with...

Getting to Know a Story's Setting

I said above that setting is almost like another character in your novel, and that the best way to build it is to treat it like one of your story people.

When creating characters, you write profiles to get to know them – listing their physical characteristics, what clothes they wear, their favorite food, and so on.

With setting, you do a very similar thing.

Time invested in getting to know your setting now, before you write a single word of your novel, will pay big dividends later. You'll naturally evoke an atmospheric setting on the page without even having to think about it.

The aim, then, is to get to know your setting like you know your own hometown.

If you actually set your novel in your hometown (or in a fictional version of it), you won't have much work to do. If the setting is a place you've never visited before, or if the story is set in a different era, you'll have plenty to keep you busy.

So let's get cracking...

Begin by making a few notes on your novel's principal location (the town, suburb, village, whatever). Think about the houses and style of architecture, the shops and bars and restaurants, the open spaces.

Jot down some general impressions, like you're trying to describe an entire community to someone in a few brief sentences. If it helps, draw maps. If the setting has a real-world counterpart, take photographs (or do a Google image search.

Now move your focus beyond the city limits to whatever lies beyond...

  • When characters look out their windows, do they see snowy mountain tops or smoke stacks?
  • Where are they likely to head to on a day out?
  • What else is nearby?

Remember, you're not writing a travel guide here, merely imprinting the setting on your mind. You could do this without taking notes at all, though personally I like to jot down any impressions or descriptions that drift into my head.

Next, concentrate on the principal locations within the community – the places where the majority of the scenes in the story will take place & ndash; the central character's house, their place of work, the bar they like to visit, and so on.

Bear in mind that these places must somehow "fit" with the character. A man who lives in an apartment with peeling wallpaper and who drinks in the seediest bar in town will be very different from one who lives in a penthouse and drinks in a cocktail lounge.

Also remember to make these principal locations as interesting and as unusual as you can. Just as you wouldn't create a bland character, so you shouldn't create a bland story setting.

Find that single detail which sets somewhere apart from all the other places like it.

If a character works in a downtown record store, for example, say that it used to be a greengrocer's and the records are all stored in old vegetable crates. Anything quirky and distinctive will do.

Next, concentrate on the activities and occupations of the story's characters. Whatever activity lies at your novel's core (banking, pig farming, running a Chinese restaurant), do you know enough about it to write with authority?

"Knowing enough" doesn't mean that you have to be an expert. You don't need to be a world authority on playing poker, for example, to write a good story based around the game. But you do need to be fluent with the fundamentals and have enough "insider knowledge" to interest the casual reader.

If someone really wants to find out about poker, they'll read a non-fiction guide to the game, not your novel.

In other words, your aim isn't to educate your readers (do that and you run the risk of boring them). You just need to provide enough detail – an interesting fact here, the correct terminology there – to make the poker-playing scenes believable.

Finally, consider all those other elements of the setting that I talked about above, things like the local weather patterns, the local cuisine, and so on.

Either research them if your novel is set in a real place, or invent them if not.

If your novel is set in the past, you'll also need to get the period details right. Again, some of these details require research. Others you'll have great fun inventing.

Remember, there are no "rules" here..."

How much work you do on fleshing out your story's setting is down to you...

  • Some folks like to take copious notes and draw elaborate maps and diagrams. That's fine.
  • It's also fine to do very little.

It boils down to how well you already know your setting, and whether or not you're a "planning" kind of person.

Just like with creating characters, though, the more spadework you do on the setting now, the less you'll have to break your creative flow when you eventually write the story.

Once you have built the setting in your own imagination, so that you know it as well as your own hometown, it's time to bring it to life on the printed page.

Do you write fantasy or science fiction?

All of the principles I'm talking about apply to those types of novels. But, for you, building an entire world from scratch is clearly a much bigger and more specialized job than building a setting for, say, a contemporary romance.

To help you with "world building" (if fantasy or sf is your thing), I've tracked down this excellent resource from Stephanie Cottrell Bryant.

Setting and Description

Bringing a story's setting to life is largely about skilful descriptive writing. Once you know your setting well enough to close your eyes and take a mental stroll around it, seeing the sights and hearing the sounds, the rest comes down to conveying those sights and sounds to your reader with excellent description.

This isn't the time or place to cover descriptive writing (click the link right above for that). Instead, I want to talk about a couple of things you need to keep in mind when you do start writing...

1. Reveal Setting in the Right Order

More specifically, always work from the general to the specific when describing a setting.

If you're describing a house, for example, begin with an overall impression of the building (the "general"), just like the reader is seeing it from afar. Then move in closer and describe those specifics that were not visible from a distance.

Yup, writers describing settings is very similar to how film directors set the scene in a movie...

  • A scene often begins with a wide-angled shot showing the town or the house (or whatever) from afar.
  • Then the camera zooms-in on the scene, or else cuts straight to the close-up view.

First you get the context. Then the specifics.

Another good principle is to move from the concrete to the abstract.

The "concrete" means those tangible elements of a setting, things you can see and touch – bricks and mortar, wooden doors, stone steps.

"Abstract" includes things like a chill in the air, an unpleasant smell, a sound the character can't quite place – things which are more to do with a setting's atmosphere than its architecture.

2. Remember to Give Setting "Reminders"

The first time you describe a particular location, paint the full picture for the reader. I'm not just talking about the overall setting here (the town as a whole, for example), but each of the locations within it, the places where most of the scenes are set – houses, rooms within houses, restaurants, and so on.

By "full," I don't mean that you have to write pages and pages of description. In fact, you shouldn't. (Great novel writers are capable of creating entire pictures with just a few brush strokes.)

The first time you describe a place, simply make sure that you give the reader enough detail to be able to picture it fully in her mind.

The next time a scene takes place in this location, you clearly do not need to describe it all over again. However, you should select a couple of telling details from that initial description and present them to the reader again.

If you describe a creepy Gothic mansion in the opening chapter, for example, "remind" them of that description when you return to the mansion in Chapter 4...

So if you mentioned the gargoyles and crooked chimneys in the original description, mentioning those two things again will remind the readers of all the other details you described (but that you're not now repeating).

Once you've triggered people's memories in this way, you can build upon the picture in their heads by mentioning new details – the cobwebs covering the letter box, perhaps, or the cold touch of the door handle, even though it's a sweltering day.

Wrapping Up

A well-described, multi-dimensional setting is important in a novel. The way you achieve it is by...

  1. understanding that setting is about far more than bricks and mortar
  2. taking the time to get to know your setting before you start to write
  3. using your powers of descriptive writing to convey the setting to the reader.

There's just one danger to be aware of...

Allowing your setting to overwhelm the story.

If you spend hours and hours creating a rich and atmospheric setting for your novel, it's only natural to want to work as much of it into the story as possible.

All those details you researched? You throw them all in, right?

Er, no!

Readers are drawn to stories to discover who does what to whom. The setting, or the backdrop, should always be positioned behind the characters and the events – adding atmosphere and context, yes, but never getting in the way of the action.

Let's say you're writing a novel about an artist...

Describing the different types of paints or how to clean brushes is important (they add authenticity to the story). But always keep the details in the background...

  • A little snippet here and there, in between the action and dialogue, is good.
  • A three-page essay on the farm's topography, with the characterization and events put on hold while you write it, will make your novel sound more like non-fiction.

And that's it – your brief(ish) guide to how to build a setting for your story!

If you missed those "dig deeper" articles I mentioned above, here they are again...