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Defining setting

Setting is a very powerful tool in a writer’s armoury because setting can do so much. Ensure you make the most of it by considering all that it can do.

What do we mean by setting?
  • Time/period
  • Location
  • Weather
  • Mood/atmosphere/tone
  • Symbolic/metaphorical

Imagine going to the theatre to see a play. The house lights go down, the curtain opens and on stage you see a very simple set of a desk and a chair. If the desk is antique with a battered leather top and a heavy wooden chair, you’re going to get a very different impression to a desk made of particle board with splayed legs and an accompanying plastic chair of Swedish design. A picture paints a thousand words after all. Two simple props have set the scene.

Key takeaway: Think of a stage set. Always think of setting as props.

So, setting can orient the reader in time such as day or night or a seasonal holiday, or a period in time such as the year 1969, or even an era.

People often think of location when setting is mentioned and this can set the whole tone of the story, allowing the atmosphere of the place to bleed into the story, hopefully matching with its central idea – and this works especially well if there is an already a pre-defined idea about a well-known place or type of setting. A story which features a dark forest can bring to mind childhood nightmares which may inspire an author to allude to these in some way. Think of setting in terms of microcosm and macrocosm, from infinite space to a limited environment. A whole movie was once set inside a coffin buried under the ground and worked very successfully (Buried, 2010, starring Ryan Reynolds).

Weather can also have a huge effect on the mood of a story along with the implications for the plot. Man pitted against the environment brings immediate conflict and a series of obstacles to mind. Weather can also mirror the emotions of a character’s disposition for example.

There’s an old bad writing joke from the Peanuts cartoon featuring Snoopy, a dog with authorial ambitions, where he starts his manuscript with the immortal sentence ‘It was a dark and stormy night’. It’s awful but there have been great stories which open with the weather. There are no rules in writing but you have to know what they are so you can break them successfully.

So, setting is all about creating a mood or atmosphere or tone, but it can do so much more. It can draw on the symbolic, be metaphorical; a stand-in for something else, as well as inspiring elements of the plot and being a shortcut in revealing much about the players, especially the protagonist. See my other posts about setting to explore how setting can be used further, especially in developing characterisation and plot.