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4.1 What is setting?
Setting is the where and the when of your story, the place and time of the action. It can be very specific (Innisfail, 1942) or it can be vaguely drawn (some kind of galaxy far, far away), but all successful settings contain common elements that we can explore.
One thing setting is not is window-dressing for your story. An evocative setting is remarkably good as setting a tone and a mood for your story and, at its best, may become something like a silent character in your story.
4.2 What does setting need to do?
Setting takes us to a place and makes us believe we’re there. Setting needs to show us when the story is occurring and needs to be seamless and consistent through the whole story. Anything else is doing what Tolkien calls ‘breaking the secondary world’.
Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”
Although this comment refers to fairytales and fantasy fiction, it should be mirrored just as ruthlessly in all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. Even on a stage, a believable setting is more than a painted backdrop or a set of props; it’s about using the story to construct a world for your characters to inhabit. A good setting is a world that could exist beyond the story you’re telling, even if you never choose to do so.
Setting gives us the context in which the story is occurring, and context is essential to our understanding of a story. It grounds characters in a location and that location expands our ideas of who those characters are. What’s their station in life? What kind of culture did they grow up in? And what kind of beliefs might logically flow from those things? The temporal setting of the story sets up our expectations of characters’ behaviours as well, and when they go against those expectations, it gives us a story.
Imagine, for example, a young Victorian-era woman who wants the right to vote. Not content to sit at home and wait for a husband, she protests and chains herself to the railings of Westminster.
Understanding the setting—the social, structural and physical environment— is essential to making sense of the story itself.
4.3 Examples: using setting to establish mood
Think about setting not just as factual information but as an essential part of a story’s mood and emotional impact. Careful portrayal of setting conveys meaning through interaction with characters and plot. Below are some examples in which setting delivers an essential dimension to understanding the stories’ themselves.
Beneath the moonlight, nine sheet metal letters span the face of the escarpment – MIAMI HIGH – someone’s attempt to emulate the 50-foot-high sign in the Hollywood Hills of LA. It’s the last Friday of summer, the night before the full moon, and what Dingo is really thinking about as he gazes across the empty school oval at the sign is the ocean. Even now he can hear it – the dark waves crashing behind the school.
Amy Barker, Omega Park.
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4.4 Build a world
At its broadest level, setting becomes ‘world building’. Building a real, three-dimensional world requires careful and thorough preparation for the writer. A complete world contains the following:
- Locale—planet, country, city, building, field, woods, vehicle, at sea, in space. Any physical space in which you can put characters and action
- Weather—rain, snow, sunshine, fog, temperatures, hurricanes, droughts, and so forth
- Objects—any physical items a character can touch or use or refer to (think props)
- Era—the broad time period in which the story occurs. An era might encompass a huge swathe of time (the middle ages) or a shorter, more specific period (the Fitzgerald Inquiry)
- Time—the specific time within the era. How much time elapses as the individual events of your story unfold?
- History—what historical events have led to the time in which your story takes place?
- Culture—laws, social practices, societal taboos, societal expectations, politics and government, entertainment/games, religious practices, education, war, mores, technology
- Geography—type and/or condition of land to include mountains, plains, lowlands, islands, cloud cities, volcanoes, and so on. Terrain. Plant and animal life
Whether it is built from reality, your own imagination, or a combination of the two, your story world will be assumed to contain all of these things in order to be believable. Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to shoehorn all these details in the actual text of your story (see Keep it relevant below), but, like character, the more you know about your story world, the more it will show in your narrative.
There is a way to shortcut some of this world building work by using a world that your readers may recognise from other stories—a timeless medieval setting, Ancient Egypt, a Colony on Mars, Dickensian London, the present day6. But remember, such shortcuts run the risk of being cliché unless you can bring something unique to them. What is it about your version of this familiar setting that will your readers will not be expecting?
4.5 Use your senses to avoid the ‘white room’
While building a story world informs the broad arc of your story, eventually that world must become distilled into a more concrete setting in which individual scenes can occur.
Settings, and stories, fail when a reader can’t picture where and when scenes are happening. The ‘white room’ is what we call a setting has been described inadequately, so all the action seems to take place in a void.
A good way to get started with setting a scene is to use your character’s senses. What can your character see, smell, taste, hear, feel? Use a combination of two or three of senses to create something unique and evocative. Many early writers think only about sight—how something looks—which frequently results in two-dimensional descriptions.
When you’re writing your first draft, use all the senses, but when you’re editing you may realise that some of that information is simply irrelevant to your story, so pare it back. But in the first instance, use them all because then you can compare and contrast the weight and effect they’ll have on the narrative and choose the best one.
4.6 Be clear, be specific
Detail is essential to create a believable setting, but it’s always about balance. Too much detail reads like a manual or a recipe. Have a clear picture in your own mind of the scene and reveal the details that have relevance to the story. If you’re going to try and move a character, whether across a room or a country, you need to know what lies in their way.
Being specific in your setting is an elegant way to convince a reader that you know what you’re talking about. Being specific also means the details of the scene are easier to find. It’s one thing to set a scene under trees by a river. It’s quite another to set the same scene under jacaranda trees by the Brisbane River.
Setting is not only place but also time, and both need to be clear, especially if you’re writing in a time period that’s relatively modern but without the tech we take for granted (e.g. mobile phones).
This is one instance where you’re allowed to do a little telling as well as showing: to fill in some of the history of your setting, if it’s necessary to make sense of the place. Again, make sure you tell the reader only what is relevant. When you’ve done a lot of research on your setting, it can be tempting to show off everything you’ve learned. This is by no means a mistake confined to new writers. We’ve all read stories that get bogged down in setting. An eight-page elegy to the colour of the leaves on the trees in May or a technical breakdown of exactly how steam engines work is going to lose a lot of readers and unlikely to have much bearing on the story.
4.7 Be consistent
Remember, regardless of whether you are building a world from scratch, out of your imagination, or building a story world out of a real place and time, you will need to be consistent. Whatever the rules of your setting that you’ve established from the outset are like physical laws. Break them and you’ll likely not just lose readers, but severely annoy them.
Imagine a thriller-type story that has seen its hero cheat death in a variety of exciting ways only for you to discover towards the end that characters can come back from the dead. This can also happen in smaller ways. Setting a story in the past means using language from the time (or at least what sounds like language of the time). Even a minor contemporary turn of phrase will be extremely jarring in your nineteenth century comedy of manners.
If readers suspect you, you’ll instantly lose their trust.
‘It is necessary to create constraints, in order to invent freely. In poetry the constraint can be imposed by meter, foot, rhyme, by what has been called the “verse according to the ear.”… In fiction, the surrounding world provides the constraint. This has nothing to do with realism… A completely unreal world can be constructed, in which asses fly and princesses are restored to life by a kiss; but that world, purely possible and unrealistic, must exist according to structures defined at the outset (we have to know whether it is a world where a princess can be restored to life only by the kiss of a prince, or also by that of a witch, and whether the princess’s kiss transforms only frogs into princes or also, for example, armadillos).’
— Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose
Consistency may well be the bugbear of tiny minds, but it is the gold standard for storytelling. Just as your characters need to act consistently with their traits, so too must the setting.
4.8 Above all, keep it relevant
Ultimately, setting is like an iceberg. Only a small portion of all your world building makes it into the final draft of your story. As the story is told, more may be revealed, but you only reveal as much as is needed in accordance with its relevance to the story.
Setting is about balance: give your reader just enough information to place the story within a context, to understand why characters behave and situations unfold the way they do, and to give a sense of what it feels like to inhabit that world.
Striking a balance between depth and pace is essential to keeping your reader engaged and satisfied.
4.9 Examples: authors setting the scene
What happens when all this comes together? Here are some examples of stories that take you into their world and leave you with an understanding of setting and its role in the story. Observe how the writers allow details in the setting to unfold, direct your attention, and reveal a sense of history and mood.
He thought of the mangroves with their roots in mud, and under their misshapen arches the stick-eyes of crabs and their ponderous claws. They had been banished for a time under concrete freeways, but would soon be pushing up fleshy roots, their leathery leaves, black rather than green, agleam with salt.
—Dream Stuff by David Malouf
I saw those apartment buildings as works of art. I could not pass a construction site during those boom years without stopping and marvelling at the workers. I perched on the edge of massive holes in the earth with their foundations of concrete and steel, and watched for hours. These were our pyramids. My favourite sight was travelling across the Southport Bridge and looking down into Surfers, into the tangle of yellow cranes that stood like birds at the edge of a watering hole.
—A Night at the Pink Poodle by Matthew Condon
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4.10 Activity: your turn to set the scene
Are you ready to bring a place to life?
WHAT TO DO
First, write a paragraph that describes one of the following settings physically (we’ve given a few relevant categories of physical features in parentheses to get you started). Picture yourself in that place and think about using all your senses to describe it. Think about how the space around you is arranged and how you might move around it. Think about how it changes over time:
- Victorian London (people, social conditions, bustle, architecture, transport)
- An Australian country town (buildings and architecture, streets, sounds)
- Ancient Egypt (the Nile, the pyramids, palms, sand and dust)
- An ice station in the Antarctic (colour of ice, water, sky, wildlife, cold, winds and weather, sounds)
- A beach somewhere on the Queensland coast (colour of the sand, sky and water, smells, sounds)
Now take that paragraph and weave in 2-3 sentences that give a sense of something more than the physical space: society, politics, government, culture or history. Find something specific (an object, a feature) within your setting that hints at greater depth and richness and describe it in more detail.
How much richer is the setting from the addition of these components?
Now think about the mood you wish to convey in this paragraph. Think about the choice of words you have already used and how they could be changed to alter the tone. As an extra-credit challenge, try to work against type. Can you make your London bright and happy or your beach dour?
Finally, pare your paragraph back. Do some descriptions work better than others? Is there anything unnecessary or repetitive? Can you shorten individual sentences with the right choice of words?
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