Writing Story Settings

Story settings will help to create a mood. Realtors often say that location is everything, and the same can be said of story locations. Consider some of the stories that have had an impact on you, and chances are high that you'll remember where the author situated the story.

Sometimes the difference between a good story and a great story lies in the care with which a story setting is chosen and depicted. Whenever possible, choose a unique location that will interest readers. Give them something out of the ordinary to keep them reading.

In Burning Ground I set the novel at an isolated northern fire tower because I once worked as a fire lookout, and people always expressed curiosity about that. In Burning Ground, the setting plays such an important role that it is almost like another character and provides much of the conflict in the story.

The protagonist's actions are determined by the world she lives in, and she battles the environment as much as she battles her psychological demons. By the time I finished writing the novel, the isolated story setting had become a metaphor for her psychological isolation.

Use vivid description to sear details of story settings into the reader's memory. Here's an example from Burning Ground:

As fast as she can, she climbs, metal and cables rattling and banging. As she climbs, she counts the rungs, 23, 24, 25 ... 86, 87 ... 99, 100.

In the cupola, her chest heaves with the effort of the climb. She surveys the area around the tower with bare eyes—a full 360 degree turn. Nothing but treetops as far as she can see. There are a few shiny spots, distant lakes and swamps looking more like worn patches than actual lakes, but for the most part, only vibrant green, in as many shades as one can imagine. Sometimes she thinks she has never seen anything so beautiful, so rich and thick as the forest top spreading over the land, years old, like a fine Persian carpet protecting the earth.

In that passage, I hoped to engage the reader's senses and build a mental picture as I described not only the landscape, but also the firetower. I wanted to suggest the height of the tower as the protagonist climbed, and also the noise the tower made as she raced up it.

Have your characters react to story settings and respond to what they see, feel, or touch. In another example from Burning Ground, I have lightning hit the tower as the protagonist climbs:

When she is fifty feet up, a live orange and white current zigzags down one of four ground cables—not more than ten feet from where Percy grips the ladder. Before she can move, the sky cracks open with an enraged boom and empties itself upon her. Freezing, clothes and hair plastered to her body, she cowers in indecision. Her eardrums ache, her legs tremble and crumple inward. She clings to one rung, and even over the drum of rain on metal, hears herself, pathetic, whimpering. To be in the tower for a direct hit is one thing; to be part way up the ladder is quite another.

Aim to engage the reader's imagination, so that his or her mind spins details into an enhanced replica of what has been read. The right details should make the reader feel as though he is on the spot with the character, so take nothing for granted as you describe both location and action. But don't overdo it, either. A long list of details can be less effective than one, carefully chosen.

If your characters are at the beach, write story settings that describe the sound of the surf, the taste and sting of salt air, and the warmth and feel of sand against bare feet. If it is important to the story, describe a few passersby, and whether crowds swarm the beach or it stretches bare into the distance.

Allow readers to feel the wind, heat, or other weather conditions. What else resides on the beach? Plastic wrappers? Running shoes set by a trash bin? Either of these could suggest much about the location.

A story where the characters munch on Big Macs will be very different from one in which the characters sit down to coq au vin and a glass of Chardonnay. Whether they have this meal at home or in a restaurant makes a difference, too, and if the meal is served to them, readers will appreciate some details about the restaurant, as well.

Watch For These

  1. Spread the details around. Don't stuff all the details about story settings into one paragraph and think you're finished. Weave the details into the story as the characters talk and take action.

  2. Separate adjectives. Avoid placing several in a row. Instead, separate the details into different sentences. Not: The plush green sofa, pushed against the wide, polished oak panels... But: She sat on the sofa and picked at the green nap until a thread unraveled. She rolled it between her fingers and pushed it flat against the cushion. Wide oak panels gave the room an oppressive feel, everything polished to a shine and reeking of lemon.

  3. Create a sensory experience. Don't tell that it's ninety degrees in the shade if you can show characters fanning themselves and blotting perspiration from their faces.

  4. Go easy on the description. Don't write more about the setting than a story can handle. A short scene requires only a few words of description. A long chapter requires more. There is no set rule for this, but as you work details in around the characters' actions, you will get a feel for the correct balance.

  5. Remember that times change. Don't neglect the social framework. In the 1950s, school misdemeanours revolved around chewing gum in class or running in the halls. Now the kid with a bulge in his pocket could be hiding a revolver. Your story should include details of the time.

Story settings include much more than simple description of place. Think of setting as the stage which contains your story, as important as any character. It informs readers of geography, climate, time, social context, politics, architecture, and much more. And it determines the thoughts and actions of your characters.

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