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The power of place: 6 tips to craft a strong story setting

Updated: Jun 14

“But you don’t have to be a David Bowie fan to appreciate the power of the setting.”

Last fall, I instructed a course at my local community college on the power of devising an impactful setting for your story. Before curating the content for this course, I hadn’t thought too deeply about the importance of this fundamental building block in storytelling. But let me tell you, the more I thought about it, the more I’m convinced it’s the backbone of the plot.

The setting provides context for the narrative and is responsible for the mood, tension, and tone of each and every scene. Writing a strong setting is difficult, but when done well, it’s one of the elements that guarantees a reader will get lost in a story. A setting must be believable, engaging, and support the theme of the book. When done well, the setting will influence the plot and can potentially create obstacles for the protagonist to overcome. I’m thinking about the 1986 film The Labyrinth. Talk about a strong setting! The story literally cannot progress without the labyrinth.

But you don’t have to be a David Bowie fan to appreciate the power of the setting. You just need to understand what the setting can do to create a powerful sensory experience for your readers: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

There are two types of settings used in fiction storytelling. Integral settings are essential to the plot (most likely because they are critical to conflict, a character arc, or serve a symbolic function.)The second type of setting is called a backdrop. It serves no other purpose outside of helping the reader understand where the story takes place.

But no matter which type of setting you choose, your goal is to still construct a strong story. I highly recommend following these six tips to achieve success: research, establish a sense of time, provide context, offer strong descriptions, be specific, and engage the senses. Let’s walk through these concepts in more detail. 

Research

This may sound obvious, but if you’re writing about an actual town, city, location, etc., you must get the details accurate. Committing the time to learning the history, the population, demographic makeup, and so on, will benefit you in the long run. Research becomes even more important if you’re writing about a real setting you’ve never been to. If you inaccurately describe it, readers who have been there, will know. And you’ll immediately diminish your credibility.

But the importance of research doesn’t stop there. It’s just as imperative for fictional settings, too. If you’re writing about a fictional small town, be sure to spend the time learning about a real one. The content you discover will transfer. 

Instill a strong sense of time

This tip is a big one. It doesn’t just apply to your larger setting; it applies to every scene you write, too. You must orient your readers in a time and place. Fleshing out your story’s narrative and timeline will keep your readers grounded. While different scenes can take place in the same location, knowing how the location changes over time will help you write better scenes.

Ask yourself questions. If your scene takes places outside, how would you describe the lighting at dusk compared to dawn. Does it differ? Think about how seasons impact the way the location looks. And if time has passed, what demonstrates the length of time that’s elapsed? 

Give context

A setting is more than just a location, it’s about the world that surrounds it (this is particularly important when writing an integral setting). Think about the social, historical, and political background. They’re all elements that feed into your description and offer context to your reader. Even if you’re creating a setting from scratch, develop the history and understand what world events might have impacted it. Think about Panem, the fictional setting of The Hunger Games. Even though Panem is “made up”, it’s based on the assumed ruins of North America’s dystopian future. There’s a history there that feeds into the setting.

There’s a lot to share with your reader to be sure, but avoid information dumping. Sprinkle in the pieces that are important and filter out the parts that are not imperative for the reader to know. 

Be descriptive

Being descriptive does not mean describing every detail. What I mean here is that you need to describe the things that make your setting unique. If the information is irrelevant and doesn’t further the story, leave it out. Insert the proper amount of description where it matters. Tailor the amount of detail to your ideal reader and genre. If you’re reading high fantasy or science fiction, you have a lot of room for description. Readers in this genre expect it. But if you’re writing a YA romance, be mindful that setting details are not going to move the story forward and may deter the reader, too. 

Be specific

Unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien, you do not need to describe what a tree looks like for three pages. Most readers can imagine it on their own based on their frame of reference. Rather, focus your energy on what kind of trees are in your setting, what animals may use them, or what season they bloom in. Specifics like these are essential to building a vivid sense of time and place. The specifics you share help immerse your readers in your world. 

Engage the senses

Senses bring your story to life. When done well, writing a sensory experience will help your readers connect with your story. It’ll allow readers to live the experience instead of simply just reading about it (show, don’t tell, anyone?). You can say a lot about a place by evoking a sensory experience. Think about the texture of weathered stone. Or the smell of freshly baked bread. These experiences evoke memories. The key to crafting a great story setting is to keep it immersive but not overwhelming.

And there you have it! Six tips for creating a strong story setting!

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