Sunday, February 20, 2011

Where Should Your Story Be?

A Half Dozen Hints for Creating Settings
by Katherine Swarts

Readers will enjoy your story more if they're clear on where and when it takes place. Here's how to establish setting in a way that adds to the reading experience.

Setting (comprising the location and time of a story’s events) is the fourth element of good writing. (There are two major elements—plot and characters—and two minor ones—theme and setting.) Readers should “see” even an Anysmalltown, U.S.A., well enough for the tale to flow smoothly through their brains. So:

1. Establish essential aspects at the beginning. If characters will be delayed by a blizzard in Chapter Six, readers should know, well in advance, that blizzards are conceivable in the story’s season and climate. You want people to become so engrossed that they effectively forget this is fiction; having the blizzard pop out of nowhere, after readers settle into comfortable mental pictures of a Florida summer, jars them back to reality while they scramble to recover the flow.
(Some plots hinge on the setting’s not being what it seems, as in Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Running Out of Time. But they drop a few hints; Haddix’s “frontier” people occasionally slip into twentieth-century slang.)

2. Remember that, unless told differently, readers picture the following as similar to their own:
  • Geographic location. It may not matter whether a story takes place in Vermont or California. But if the climate, or anything else particular to location, will play an important role, let readers know quickly where they are.
  • Area population and housing. The same principle applies; if your text refers to barns, mention the rural setting early on.
  • Time period. If your story is set in the present, you needn’t mention dates; but if things are taking place in the past—or in a speculative future—establish that quickly.
The further your story is removed from today’s “real world,” the more space you’ll need for setting. However:

3. Never use up space on setting, at the expense of story. If your setting is another planet and your characters human only in emotions, you’ll have to describe things in some detail. But if you open with twenty pages on the planet’s physics, readers will give up after five minutes. Instead, start with a character doing something interesting—but a character with an alien name, using something exotic like a “timonet.” Once readers are hooked on what’s happening, you can weave in essential information bit by bit, as part of dialogue or action where possible.

4. With all descriptions, shorter is better. Whenever you catch yourself using an adjective or adverb, ask: could I trade this, with its companion noun or verb, for a more descriptive noun or verb? Heavy rain becomes downpour; the waves rolled in loudly becomes the waves crashed. (Don’t write crashed loudly or heavy downpour; loudly and heavy go without saying.)

5. To maximize your ability to create a convincing setting, put the story in a place you’re personally familiar with—the town you live in, the factory where you work—or in a near-identical, imaginary place if you don’t want acquaintances suspecting that characters were modeled after them. When you already “have the feel” of a place, accurate details will flow naturally into the story. Information gleaned from Web sites and reference books, however reliable, makes for artificial-sounding descriptions.

6. If you do set your story somewhere you can’t personally visit, do your research. Interview people who do have direct experience with that setting (or, if none remain alive, read diaries and letters from the period). Visit your historical novel’s location as it is today, and talk to current residents. With a future or fantasy setting, study experts in the genre, and interview real-life scientists or folklorists.

Katherine Swarts is a professional copywriter and journalist, founder and owner of Spread the Word Commercial Writing in Houston, Texas. Spread the Word is certified by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council.

Since 1993, Katherine has published over 50 articles in numerous periodicals, including Carus Publishing's Appleseeds, Faces, and Odyssey; Children's Writer (on which see comments in next paragraph); and Christian Home & School. She has also prepared two anthologies for Thomson Gale.
Katherine has a bachelor's degree in English from Austin College in Sherman (TX), and a master's degree in written communications from Wheaton (IL) Graduate School. She has also studied with the Institute of Children's Literature, which publishes the monthly newsletter Children's Writer; two annual market guides; and an annual writer's yearbook.


  1. Nice job, Katherine. Your essay on establishing time and place is succinct and interesting.
    Thanks for sharing this with us, Joylene! -Judy

  2. You're very welcomed, Judy. Hope you have a fabulous week. Bet there's no snow there!

  3. Once again, really timely tips that are keepers!

    I particularly loved number 4, condensing the words to make them more powerful. Such a wonderful, effective tool which I need to learn to use more often.

    Thanks for sharing these valuable tips!

  4. I really enjoyed this post, Katherine and Joylene! This is all great advice.

  5. @Hi Carol. Glad you found the tips useful. I know you're in for a busy time with your new book. Best of luck with all your marketing.

    @Hi Laura. Thanks so much for stopping by. I love sharing Katherine's posts, and knowing that they are enjoying and helpful really makes my day.

  6. Excellent advice on setting! It definitely applied to my adventure novel set in the past!

  7. Hi Lauren. Thanks so much for stopping by. And for sharing your photographs. They are beautiful.


Thank you for visiting my blog. Please come in and sit for while. We will talk about writing. We will share our dreams. Then I will serve tea and cookies. Home made and Gluten Free.