When we think of setting, we automatically think of “where” the story is taking place. I’m sure that in all of your stories, you’ve mentioned where the action takes place, whether it’s in a forest, at school, at home, or even in a restaurant. The possibilities are endless, so how do you choose?
The first element of developing your setting is to decide whether your setting is a real life place or a made up place.
Real-life Places as Setting
If you choose a real-life setting, you’ll need to research to make sure you’ve got all of your details perfect. For example, if you set the story in San Francisco, you need to make sure that the Golden Gate bridge is north of the city. If your story is in a real high school, you need to make sure you have the size and color of the lockers correct. If your story takes place in the jungle near the Amazon river, you’ve got to make sure you have accurately described the kinds of trees and animals that live there. If you don’t, your super smart readers will pick up on your errors and question your credibility.
Here’s an example of a real life setting from A Fault in Our Stars by John Green. In this scene, two characters have traveled to Amsterdam.
“There were elm trees everywhere along the canals, and these seeds were blowing out of them. But they didn’t look like seeds. They looked for all the world like miniaturized rose petals drained of their color. These pale petals were gathering in the wind like flocking birds–thousands of them, like a spring snowstorm” (161).
And that is why John Green has been on the bestseller list with every book he writes. The small, well-researched details here develop not only the setting but also the character’s new love for one another.
In another example from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs describes the woods behind the main character’s grandfather’s house, a place where a murder has just taken place.
“It’s hard to run in the Florida woods, where every square foot not occupied by trees is bristling with thigh-high palmetto spears and nets of entangling skunk vine, but I did my best, calling my grandfather’s name and sweeping my flashlight everywhere. I caught a white glint out of the corner of my eye and made a beeline for it, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be just a bleached and deflated soccer ball I’d lost years before” (31).
He accurately describes the woods in Florida, but he picks those details to emphasize that create an eery mood. The trees bristle and entangle. He sees a white “dead” ball which foreshadows the body he finds in the next paragraph.
Fictional Places as Setting
Avoiding massive amounts of research is one great reason to completely create your own setting. Make up a fictional city. Map out your own fictional high school or small town. You can take details from places you know, but change some of them to avoid “errors.”
This doesn’t mean you can avoid research completely, like in both the examples above, but you can create another world for your readers. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins describes the setting right away to set up Katniss’ world.
“Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces. But today the black cinder streets are empty. Shutters on the squat gray houses are closed…Our house is almost at the edge of the Seam. I only have to pass a few gates to reach the scruffy field called the meadow. Separating the Meadow from the woods, in fact enclosing all of District 12, is a high chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire loops. In theory, it’s supposed to be electrified twenty-four hours a day as a deterrent to the predators that live in the woods – packs of wild dogs, lone cougars, bears – that used to threaten our streets. But since we’re lucky to get two or three hours of electricity in the evenings, it’s usually safe to touch” (4-5).
Note the details – she describes the people’s shoulders, knuckles, and even fingernails, not the normal details you’d think of to describe a person, but then she notes the streets are empty which indicates that something about the day is different than normal. This passage clearly conveys a poor, rural town. But she also sets up that it’s a fictional place. It’s District 12 that’s surrounded by a chain link fence. Wild animals roam. This passage is short but does an excellent job conveying not only the poverty but also the desperation and ugliness of the place.
The Details Create the Mood
Once you’ve decided on where your story will take place, in a real or fictional place, you need to develop the specific details to help your reader imagine it clearly and create the mood in the story.
In two of the above examples, the authors mention the trees and plants. In one, the trees become a metaphor for their love swirling around them in a literal sense, while in the others the plants are ominous and even aggressive. Not every scene has plants, but it’s these small details that help create a sense of place.
For example, if your scene takes place in a car, what kind of car is it? A luxury sedan or an ancient rusting Ford truck? Is the interior super clean or does garbage litter the floor? Is the radio on? Is it playing opera or rock?
If your story takes place on a street, is it empty or filled with crowds of people? Is it a dusty dirt road, a suburban neighborhood, or a wide city boulevard?
Remember to consider elements such as the weather. Is it cold, hot, rainy, dry?
Some of these details might not matter, and you won’t want to include all of them as that could get boring, but you will want to include some of them. Just make sure they’re accurate if you’ve chosen a real life setting for your story.
1. Take a minute to either read through a story you’ve written and highlight your references to the places or just think about the spaces in which one of your stories takes place.
2. Make a list of the moods that you want those places to convey. Desperate or eery might be words to describe the examples above. What about excited? Hopeful? Nervous?
3. List the details in that place that would convey that mood.
4. Finally choose some of those details and add them to your story. Remember this doesn’t need to be pages of description. It could be a sentence or two or even just a phrase, but add some details to help develop the mood.
Do you prefer to use a real-life setting? A completely made-up setting? Or a combination of the two? Share in the comments below.