What is the setting?
Your story’s setting is where it happens; this where may be made up of multiple factors you should take into consideration. Your story may have multiple settings, although it is important that you consider how many settings you would actually be able to cover in an exam – generally, it is better that you create one immersive setting as opposed to many settings which lack the thought and care that you could put into one within the time restraints. This article will cover five key questions you should consider when creating a setting.
1. What is the time & place of your story?
Arguably, the two most important factors of a setting are time and place:
- Time – Time covers a few key areas:
i. Time period: Is your story set in the past, present, or future? Your story could be set in Ancient times, in the modern day, or in an imagined future. For example, it could be set in Ancient Greece, the Victorian era, 21st century London, or in a futuristic setting where humans live on Mars.
ii. Time of day: Is it day or night? Simply put, your story could be set in the daytime or nighttime. However, there are many smaller fragments of a day to take into account when you consider lighting in your story. For example, your story could be set in the dawn, morning, midday, afternoon, evening, dusk, or twilight.
iii. Seasonal time of year: Is your story set in spring, summer, autumn, or winter?
- Place – Place covers a couple key areas:
i. The location: Where in the multiverse is your story? It is a good idea to think of the options of locations as a multiverse as your story does not necessarily need to be set in this universe, perhaps it is in another world that you have imagined. When considering the location, think about: what world it is in – this world or another world and where in this/that world is it – space, the sea, the sky, the land, or underground.
If it’s on land – what country is it in – England, another country, or an imagined country and what environment is it in – a desert, a jungle, an arctic landscape, a tropical island, a forest, a countryside landscape, farm fields, a meadow, a coastal landscape, caves, a city, a village?
ii. The surroundings: What are the significant features making up your location – some general surroundings you may think about is if there are buildings, bridges, roads, or notable natural features like a giant tree or mountain? For example, maybe your story is set in a castle, on the grounds of a school, or nearby a river.
2. How do the time & place of your story's setting relate to it’s themes?
Above, we listed various options for time and place you should consider when creating your story. When making those decisions, it is important to think about what those different facets represent and how they can create a certain atmosphere which contributes to the themes of your story.
Key story themes: Some key story themes are Love, Good, Evil, Humanity, Nature, Morality, Life, Death, Grief, Justice, Revenge, Coming-of-age, Family, Friendship, Courage, Beauty, Betrayal, Power, Wealth, Change, Redemption, Perseverance, Marriage, Society, Survival, Corruption, Heroism, Nature, Celebration, Loneliness, Hope, Identity, Innocence, Honour, Fate, Desire, Escapism, Sacrifice, Work, Pride, Technology, War, Crime, Supernatural, Humour, Ignorance, Freedom, Forgiveness, Opportunity, Passion, Prejudice, Truth, Trust, Childhood, Deception, Faith, Peace, and Time.
Examples: Some examples of connecting setting to theme are:
- If you were writing a story with a central theme of hope then you may incorporate the time of dawn in your setting as dawn can symbolise opportunity as it marks a new day.
- If you were writing a story with a central theme of grief then you may set your story in winter as winter can symbolise death as it is the season when most of flowering nature dies.
- If you were writing a story with a central theme of loneliness then you may set your story on an island as an island, being a place cut off from other lands, can symbolise feeling alone.
- If you were writing a story with a central theme of friendship then your may incorporate a bridge in your setting as a bridge can symbolise connection and bringing people together.
3. How do you show-not-tell in your writing?
If you want to really showcase your writing skills, show your reader what the setting is instead of telling them. If this doesn’t make sense at first, read this explanation and it should make it clear.
Say you want to show your reader what season your story is set in without actually telling them the name of the season or the month it is set in, you may give them descriptive clues that indicate what season it is set in. Brainstorm features of the season which would make it recognisable and embed those into your story.
For example, if your story is set in English springtime, you may include descriptions of budding crocuses, as these are spring flowers, and woodland creatures becoming busy, as spring is when animals stop hibernating.
4. How do your characters and setting interact?
- Is it a harmonious or hostile relationship?
If a character and setting have a harmonious relationship, then this may suggest that the character is at peace, happy, or if it is a natural setting – at one with nature. You may show a harmonious character-setting relationship by for example, if the setting is the woods, having your character’s path through the woods clearly outlined with blossoming flowers.
Contrastingly, if a character and setting have a hostile relationship, then this may suggest that the character is unhappy, feeling out-of-place, or angry. You may show a hostile character-setting relationship by for example, if the setting is the woods, having your character trip over tree roots that are covering their path.
- Is your setting a character?
There is a literary device you may use called personification which means to give human qualities to nonhuman subjects. If a central theme of your story is, for example, Man versus Nature, you may want to make the sea seem like a living character to symbolise the power of nature. Gendering it by giving it a pronoun (She/He/They) or attaching verbs which describe human actions to it can create this effect.
Pathetic fallacy is a particular type of personification wherein you evoke a mood (e.g. the main character’s mood) by attributing human emotions to inanimate objects or nature. For example, when your character feels filled with the joy, the trees dance in the wind or when the character is feeling paranoid, the angry trees swat their branches at them.
5. How do you write a sensory setting?
To write a truly immersive setting, you need to describe it using the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.
Example: To explain this, we will use the example of a lavender field setting.
- What can you touch in the field?
I can touch slightly damp, dew-dropped stems as I brush past them with my fingers.
- What can you taste in the field?
I can taste something minty and fresh in the air.
- What can you smell in the field?
I can smell the early morning’s rain mixed in with a floral sweetness.
- What can you see in the field?
I can see nothing but an endless sea of purple.
- What can you hear in the field?
I hear the soft whistle of a breeze gently following where I carve out my path.
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