Setting is the context in which a story or scene occurs and includes the time, place, and social environment. It is important to establish a setting in your story, so your readers can visualize and experience it.
Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, it is critical to establish a setting in your scenes and story. If your readers don’t know where or when the action is unfolding, they will be lost. It’s on you to ground your reader by answering the journalistic questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how so your reader can visualize the events you’re conveying.
Setting is the context in which a story occurs. Just as a photograph has a foreground and a background, so does a story. The main characters and their actions form the foreground. The time and place of the events, and the social environment surrounding them, form the background. People exist in a particular time and place. Where your characters live may contribute to their personalities, values, attitudes, and even their problems. Your story’s setting can have great impact on the people in your story, how they react, and what they do.
Setting can be a critical element in a story. Could The Scarlet Letter have been set anywhere but Puritan New England? The Grapes of Wrath anywhere but the Dust Bowl era of California? The Hunger Games set anywhere but a dystopian future? The Help set anywhere but the 1960s’ American south?
Developing the time and place of your story
Time and place — these two bedrock elements of your story must be developed in order to establish and maintain credibility. It wouldn’t make sense to include current-day surgical procedures in a tale set in the 1800s or have characters sending urgent messages by telegram in modern-day New York. Eudora Welty once said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.”
There are four kinds of time, each with a distinct role: clock time, calendar time, seasonal time, and historical time.
Clock time can create certain moods or feelings and even provide suspense. Think of the pressure of a looming deadline or a husband who sits by the phone, waiting for his wife’s kidnappers to call.
Calendar time grounds us in the year, month, and day — and even a particular day of the week or time of the month. Calendar time can provide a societal understanding of what is taking place in your writing. If you mention July 4th, Americans will understand the implications of the national holiday. It might be more subtle, like Friday the 13th or April 15th. Other countries have different calendar days that infer significance, like Boxing Day in the UK and Bastille Day in France.
Seasonal time refers to the four seasons, though winter in Minneapolis is a vastly different setting than winter in Key West, Florida. January in Sydney, Australia is nothing like January in New York. Most of us have different lifestyles in different seasons: you don’t snow ski in Vail in July or water ski in Missouri in January.
Historical time can establish a psychological or sociological understanding of behaviors and attitudes and probably has the most impact on your story’s setting. People communicate differently, depending on the time in which they live. Americans in the 1950s communicated differently than Americans in the 2000s. We speak the same language, but the vernacular has changed, and Americans in the ’50s had different assumptions about the world and how to communicate based on the era in which they lived. Common words and phrases from the pre-Civil War era America might be completely outdated or downright offensive today. Historical time contributes to the mental, moral, religious, emotional, and social setting of a story.
Place includes the geographical location of a story, which can range from a country (even a planet) to a single room. I always loved introducing my university students to Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which pretty much takes place in one bedroom as Gregor, the main character, literally turns into a bug. It’s one of the most riveting pieces of literature I’ve ever read, and most of it takes place within the same four walls.
When writing about a specific location, you might include physical details of the environment. What does it look and sound like? A subway station has its unique smells, sights, and sounds; as does a church.
But there’s more to it than that. We may find significance in the location where the action occurs, and there are physical and non-physical characteristics to consider. The non-physical environment can vary by geographic location. Cultural influences such as education, social standing, economic class, and religious beliefs certainly vary from location to location. The education system is different in Long Island than it is in Zimbabwe. It’s different in Catholic schools versus public schools in the same city. Social standing and wealth can set characters in different settings, whatever the year or city.
How do we create the setting?
So how do you use time and space to create an effective setting? As a writer, you use words. Setting is created by language.
But writing your story involves more than just describing the setting. Using psychological cues from the characters, writers can embed time and place in actions and events, at the same time revealing motivation and goals. The details should be carefully chosen to reflect the character’s inner values, thoughts, and feelings.
- In what time period does your scene or story take place?
- Are there historical events that affect the characters?
- Is the passage of time important to the story?
- How long does it take for the action to occur?
- What clues can you as the author give for the passage of time?
- In/on what planet, country, locale does the action take place?
- What does it the physical location look like, sound like, smell like?
- Is the geographical location important?
More food for thought as you write!
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