Create a Sense of Place in Your Novel, Short Story

In most Create a sense of place in your story great stories, the reader experiences an emotional reaction to the setting. Usually this emotion is a positive one as the reader wishes they really could go to such a place; of course, in novels such as a dystopia, the reader reviles the setting and may even be motivated to actively prevent our world from becoming such a horrible place.

When readers have an emotional response to the setting, the writer has succeeded in creating a sense of place. The setting feels real, whether it be entirely fictitious or if it already exists.

Consider the following passage set in a farmhouse where two bachelor farmers live:

The wind died as they entered the stuffy house, dark from the drawn curtains and yellowed Cape Cods over the kitchen sink. Boxes and stacks of newspapers lined the walls. Abbie noticed one pile topped by an edition dating back some 15 years. The furniture appeared at least that old as well, and for a moment Peter reproached himself for suggesting they go inside. Sitting at the dining table, he pushed away a cereal bowl of sour-smelling milk, while Lyle, his eyes caked with gray dust and belly sticking out even farther than usual, slumped in a chair across from him.

You probably had a visceral reaction to the farmhouse’s dirtiness. If so, that’s good – the author made the place so real that you responded to it.

You’ll also want to create a sense of place in your stories. When readers feel that the setting is real, they’re more likely to feel that they’re experiencing the story along with its characters. This in turn helps them to better understand and relate to the characters. In genre fiction when the setting is fantastical, a sense of place can make reading the story all that more fun.

You can make a setting feel real in two ways:
• Description – This involves showing what the setting looks, sounds, smells and even tastes and physically feels like. The farmhouse passage above is an example of using description to make a setting feel real.
• Worldbuilding – This is a well thought-out, expansive creation of a fictional world, such as its geography, cultures, ecology, history and more. It typically is done in science fiction and fantasy stories, but writers of any genre can create a world before writing. Historical fiction writers, for example, might map out a fictional village and the surrounding geography set in a real world, such as Tudor England.

One way to think of this is that description is the visible body of a setting and a necessity in every story. Worldbuilding is more the frame upon which description hangs, the bones of the body if you will, and sometimes is not particularly necessary for creating your story, especially when pieces are set in a contemporary location that is a backdrop setting.

More articles about setting:
• Which story setting to use? Backdrop vs. integral 
• Don’t copy favorite characters, settings 
• Describe setting from characters’ perspectives  
• Keep freeze-frame in story brief, relevant 
• Avoid reader confusion by anchoring story 
• Avoid using tropes in your story

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My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.

Check out some of my writing guidebook about setting: