Writing Craft Vol. 3: The Basics of How to Write Setting

In this volume of Writing Craft, we’ve covered a lot of ground on the theories behind writing details: what details actually are, types of details, how details may affect readers’ brains, how to summarize or call back or forward to details, and so on.

All this talk about details may have seemed like we had covered everything you need to know about writing details in a story, but we haven’t actually talked about how to integrate writing all these details so they turn into a cohesive setting.

But wait…what is setting?

Setting, in fictional terms, is the place, time, and other constraints of how a story occurs. The writer, either consciously or subconsciously, designs the setting.

The reader should be able to identify the following:

  • Is the story set in the “real” world? If not, how does the fictional world differ?
  • Is the story set at a particular time and location? If so, what is it?
  • What are the relationships of places and times (and levels of reality) for the events of the story?

The writer can blur the lines a bit, but the reader should be able to identify whether the lines are blurred. For example, episodes of The Twilight Zone aren’t necessarily set at a particular time and place but are often set in “the future,” “an alternate version of history,” or “small-town USA.”—In other words, the viewer can be confident that the stories are set in the Twilight Zone, a setting that is not necessarily strictly defined.

Here’s the series description of the Twilight Zone, from the original intro:

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”–Rod Serling

From that introduction, the viewer knows that the story is not set in the real world; the Twilight Zone is beyond which that which is known to man. The viewer also knows that each episode of the show will include “light” and/or “shadow” as well as science and/or superstition and fear and/or knowledge. The stories will be imaginative rather than realistic.

Readers should be able to establish the same sort of overall levels of information with every story they read. This information, for fiction, should be found within the text of the story, as part of the story.

The overall setting may also be found with the cover, book description, other marketing materials, book title, chapter headings (if using), any epigraphs (the quotes at the beginning of a book), or other front matter.

The story cannot, however, rely on other material to convey setting within the context of the story.

The story must introduce the setting within its own text in order to be effective.

Think about a magic trick. If a magician cut a deck and made a particular card appear without explaining why it was so impossible that that particular card should appear, the trick wouldn’t have any meaning to the audience, even if that magic trick were part of a TV show called Impressive Magic Tricks.

Magicians spend a lot of time preparing their audiences to be impressed by the actual magic trick (and making sure the audience remains impressed by the trick afterwards), and not much time actually performing the magic itself. In fact, the magic is often performed long before it is “revealed” to the audience.

Writing fiction is similar. Readers cannot care about a cool setting, intricate plot, or compelling characters if you don’t explain why those things are important.

In order for something to have meaning within a story, its meaning has to be demonstrated within the story. Otherwise, the reader’s brain won’t form strong narrative connections. 

Our brains are really good at forming “meaning” out of unrelated elements that are placed near each other or that are otherwise connected. Our brains are really bad at forming “meaning” out of related elements that aren’t placed near each other—so bad, in fact, that we call those things “hidden clues.”

Place the information the reader needs to know inside the story next to other important information in order to give it meaning; don’t assume readers will make the necessary connections on their own!

I don’t have any advice on what sort of setting you should pick, how much research you should do, what aspects you should consider, or how much planning you need to document before you start. I think these elements are going to vary more by genre, subgenre, and even niche more than anything else. 

For example, readers of realistic historical fiction are going to want a realistic setting in which the author has done all the reasearch…so the reader doesn’t have to! 

In my opinion, the best way to design a setting will depend on your readers’ expectations about setting (and your own, of course!).

My main caution here is that each element you add to a story adds to the words needed to establish that story. 

It’s hard to write a short fantasy story set in a fully fleshed out secondary world, unless that story branches off a world already established in novels. There are ways to suggest a setting quickly, and we’ll be talking about them later, but using those techniques is more difficult than with writing a short story set in the “real” world, with or without a few fantasy elements.

Other niches have other constraints on how to establish setting; just keep in mind that the more complex the setting, the more words you’ll need to get the reader engaged in the setting itself. So be careful before trying to write short stories set in complex worlds; your “story” may end up not so short!

Next, we’ll break down the elements of setting so we can talk about them separately. As with everything related to writing, these separations are arbitrary and to be used to as learning tools rather than as rules for how to write.

Here are the elements of story we are going to discuss:

  • How real is the story?
  • Is the story set in a particular place and time?
  • What are the relationships of places and times within the story?

(Next time: How real is the story?)

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