Scrambled Thoughts About “The Setting”

Author Terry Sanville

Today we have some words of wisdom from author Terry Sanville on crafting the perfect setting for our stories. Take it away, Terry!

A story’s setting has multiple dimensions. There’re the obvious physical elements – On a hot afternoon, Terry stared at his MacBook’s screen, in his stifling man-cave in an ageing Fleetwood doublewide, and wondered why the heck he’d agreed to write that article. The more mundane the physical setting, the fewer words needed to describe it; the more unique the physical setting, the more interest it will have to the reader and the more words needed. But physical elements are only part of it.

Temporal elements also need to be understood. It’s July 4th, 2020, and Terry’s drunk as a skunk. This direct way of establishing the time frame of your story can sometimes work. But it often feels clumsy and trite. Using other ways to “time stamp” your tale, while not as precise, can get the idea across. The battery of Terry’s smart phone died, leaving him stranded, sixty miles into the desert from Blythe, with no water and a gasless car with no GPS. In this example, referencing smart phones and GPS lets the reader know that the story is contemporary.  

Time stamping is important since our stories live beyond the present. And it’s equally important for historical stories to be time stamped, using elements widely associated with that particular era.  After handing Jill his “make love not war” sign, Terry removed the garland of flowers from his long hair and stepped toward the line of Ohio National Guardsmen.

And then there are the socio-political elements that should be understood. Does the story take place during wartime?  During a pandemic? A great depression?  Other things that significantly affect the worldviews and behavior of your characters? 

A story’s setting can be as strong and essential as the sea in Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” or as static and known as in the film “My Dinner With Andre.”  For Hemingway, the sea acts as another character, central to the plot. For “My Dinner” the setting is simply a backdrop for intense dialogue between characters, more like a stage play (which it originally was) than anything else. 

Where to set your story may depend on the type of story. While the setting can remain relatively static, it can add to the atmosphere and tone of the tale. For example, we might think about writing a noir piece, set on the fog-shrouded docks of San Francisco, where the plot involves drug dealers, murders and a variety of thugs. Sanville crept along the fog-shrouded alley and ducked behind an overflowing dumpster. A black Escalade with tinted windows pulled up, a rear door snapped open and a body shoved out – the dead man, Nicky, his informant. But watch out for falling into the old cliché trap. Be creative and find a setting that amplifies the story’s mood and emotions.

On the other hand, sometimes choosing a setting that is in contrast with the mood of the story can heighten tension. How many horror or crime movies have been filmed in amusement parks or county fairs where people are laughing and screaming with joy while some dastardly deed is taking place. The Ferris wheel spun in the Lubbock night then slowed to a stop. Laughter and whoops from the riders merged with the midway’s crowd noise. But in the uppermost car, Terri fought for her life.

Sometimes there’s no question where to set the story. In Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” the very essence of the tale requires it to be set at sea.  And I’m sure his experience with fishing off the coast of Havana helped. But other times, we have this idea for a story that is not innately tied to a particular location. Now we have the freedom (and the challenge) to choose.

I wrote a story titled “Ledges” about missed expectations and unbridled ambition: a wife disappointed with the status quo; a husband content with their life together. I decided to use the sandstone monoliths at Utah’s Zion National Park as a metaphor for this situation – a ledge short of the summit being a disappointment for the wife; a ledge being good enough to enjoy the view for the husband.

Sometimes, a story will come out of undirected research of a particular place. I once studied a group of islands (I like islands) off the east coast of Africa. The history of one particular island involved multiple European occupations, volcanoes, the Arab slave trade, and the spice trade with India and Japan, all during the 15th and 16th centuries. The story idea formed out of these historical and physical elements – an affair between two lesbian lovers fleeing from Arab slavers to a childhood hideout on the side of rumbling Mt. Karthala. Didn’t they make a cheesy film like that in the ’50s (all except the lesbian part)?

Once you’ve decided on a setting, or the story dictates a setting, how should it be integrated into the story? Aye, there’s the rub, says the bard. Older style novels, memoirs, and short stories often spent multiple paragraphs describing the world through which the characters move. But more contemporary fiction and creative non-fiction integrate the setting into action sequences involving the characters. The examples I’ve provided above have tried to achieve this objective. 

But the more unique the setting, the more information the reader will need.  I think science fiction stories involving other worlds or a significantly altered Earth pose a real challenge since the writer can’t depend on the reader’s common knowledge to fill in the gaps. This feature heightens the challenge of how to keep action moving without delaying it with burdensome description, sometimes called “world building.” The integration process takes a lot of practice.

But aren’t novel-length pieces a different challenge than writing a short piece? You bet.  There may be places in a novel to slow the pace and relax into a more descriptive mode.  However, maintaining tension throughout is still an essential element of contemporary writing.  So narrative side trips, e.g. precisely describing the furniture in a room and the paintings on the walls, shouldn’t be too long – even though many of us enjoy the heck out of writing them. 

The setting is not just an obvious story element that follows the plot. It can be a unique and enriching feature that the author can play with and use to amplify the story’s impact.  Some concluding tips:

  • Do your research. 
  • Use specific details that readers can imagine.  
  • Create an “atmosphere” that can either contrast with or support the plot.
  • Consider using the setting as a character.
  • Describe only important elements and avoid slowing the pace.
  • Use all senses. 
  • Use the setting as part of the story’s tension elements.

Thank you, Terry, for some very enlightening and useful information on crafting settings for our stories, both short and long. Terry’s first novel, Face-to-Face, is now out. You’ll find it on, a truly engrossing read, volume #1 of Touchables: A Dystopian Trilogy. Check it out!

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