Setting is the place and time in which the plot unfolds. The setting always must be established in a story’s opening lines.
A setting helps anchor the story. That’s because the conflicts the characters face hinge on where and when they are, which creates situations for the characters. After all, certain events and solutions simply cannot occur in various historical periods or locations. Further, if the setting is not given, readers almost always will think that the time of the story is contemporary – and if your story is not set in the early 21st century, then your reader will be disoriented when on page 2 you mention slaves in the Agora or talk about hopping a hyperdrive to Tau Ceti.
The setting need not be overtly stated. In fact, writers are best to infer the story’s place and time. Consider the following opening lines:
The valley below them stretched deep and black. On the ridge above was only scrub and rock with a stout, teetering stone wall at the edge. The sun rising behind the ridge had just begun to warm the wall and lift the shadows from the valley. The Californian and the girl with him sat on the wall where it remained upright, where rain and wind had yet to erode the granite at the ridge’s edge. In a half-hour, light would fully wash the dark from the valley, allowing the small river running through it to be seen.
“Want a cigarette?” the girl asked. She opened her macramé satchel that sat between them.
The Californian fished a lighter from his pocket. “Sure.”
From these opening lines, we know that the story’s setting is a ridge overlooking a river valley at sunrise or shortly after dawn. The description of the ridge being made of granite suggests this is a mountain ridge, as granite primarily appears in mountainous areas. The lack of details indicating that the weather is cold (seeing their breath, fumbling as getting the cigarettes and lighter with their gloves on) suggests that the season is summer, though maybe late spring or early autumn.
The reader doesn’t need to know the state or province where the ridge is located or even the name of the ridge or of the mountains. Exactly what day of the week it is or even the specific month is irrelevant. All that matters are the specific details of the place and time that directly affect the characters.
Given this, when describing the setting in your opening lines, follow these two rules:
• Tell how your main characters perceive this place – Specifically state what the characters can see, hear, smell, taste or touch to infer the place and time. Have readers experience the setting just as the characters would.
• Provide concrete details of the place – When offering what the characters experience in their setting, give specific, exact descriptions. In the above example, the valley is not vaguely described as “mysterious” but instead is dark, deep and covered by shadow.
Particularly in short stories, avoid long descriptions to establish the setting, as this can delay the introduction of the protagonist and the story’s central problem. If you must include lengthy descriptions, consider dividing your paragraph into three “sections”; for example, start with the foreground, then in the next couple of sentences go the middle, and at paragraph’s end to the background, or try left-center-right or sky-eye level-ground.
The location of your story should complement the plot and characters. When selecting where you will set your story, make it more than a backdrop for your tale.
You can accomplish this by ensuring your setting:
• Offers opportunities for your character to have conflicts – If a character is experiencing a man vs. nature or a man vs. himself conflict, then being marooned on an island is a great setting. That location probably won’t work for a man vs. society conflict, however. But think even deeper than that. Ask yourself where would the conflict and the narrative arc your main character goes through best be expressed? Suppose, for example, that your protagonist, now retired, decides to move back to the place of his childhood and renovate an old residence that nature is quickly reclaiming. A good setting for this would be a forested area that is really far out in the boondocks, the complete opposite of a large, cultured city where he has lived his entire adult life.
• Delivers a place where such conflicts naturally could occur – Don’t force a setting to fit the plot. Two ambitious corporate attorneys, for example, wouldn’t work in a small town but instead in a big city downtown high rise. Their environs are the restaurants, offices and penthouses of their corporate clients. If the attorneys live and work in a small town, this would undercut the story’s believability.
• Provides plenty of space for lots of action to occur – If your main character needs to grapple with kidnappers inside a building, make it a large skyscraper or a massive warehouse where there’s space for the action unfold. A seaside village doesn’t allow a lot of space for a sophisticated spy to battle a criminal organization throughout a novel, though it would work fine in a chapter or scene.
• Feels like a real place to readers – A setting obviously can be made-up but ought to feel like it actually could exist. That means appealing to the reader’s five senses in your description and then including parallels to something similar readers are familiar with (which is why so many science fiction novels structure spacecraft operations of the future like those of today’s naval vessels). If using a real place, always do your research so that you don’t include factual errors and so that you can provide evocative details to capture the location’s feel.
• Improves the story’s quality via the feeling or tone of the setting – The seedy side of a city at night is perfect for a dark, gritty story. A swamp works well for a horror story. That’s because the emotions the setting evokes matches the story’s tone. If you’re successful at this, you probably will create an interesting and memorable setting.
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