Writing about the setting of a story

The setting of a story is an important aspect that’s often missed out by many writers. It’s important to get the where right to enhance the who and the what. In this post, we cover why the setting of a story is important and how you can incorporate the basic principles in your book writing.

Imagine you are watching a movie. Kareena Kapoor sashays in looking stunning in a little black dress. Hrithik Roshan is there too; completely drool worthy in a macho vest and cargos. And the two of them break into dance – Bollywood style. But, the background (and foreground) is completely white. No sun, no moon, no dancers, no fire hoops, no rain, no snow-capped peaks, no flowery fields…just these two dancing on white. How would it look?

That’s exactly the sort of environment new writers sometimes tend to create, rather unconsciously. They forget to write about where things are happening in the excitement of writing about that memorable character or that exciting event that sends the readers into a dizzy of suspense.

Without the setting in a story, characters sometimes come across as being suspended in mid-air (or if they are, because they are Olympian acrobats, please let your readers know!) or in vacuum.

What do we mean by the setting of a story

In a complete sense setting is not just the place; it encompasses various elements – time, place, mood, environment, societal principles at that point in time. Pick up any book; look at the blurb. You might see sentences such as:

– set in 1970s Afghanistan or 18th century Turkey or during the Great Depression (time)

– set against the backdrop of the Bosnian war (time and political environment) or the Indian Independence movement

– set at a time when women were disallowed to remarry (time and societal principles)

– set in the slums of Dharavi (place)

Although time and environment are extremely important elements, many discussions of the setting of a story tend to focus on place. As one reads a work of fiction it becomes obvious as to whether the action happens in a specific and real place or a fictional one.

Mycomb County, in Harper Lee’s Pultizer winning book, “To Kill a Mocking bird,” was a fictional city but infused with much realism. J.K. Rowling created a world within a world (a magical world within a real world) with Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The mammoth buildings would look like the remains of a colossal ruin to non-magical people but to the witches and wizards, Hogwarts was their school.

For the purpose of this post, let’s look at getting the place right – the where things are happening bit. We’ll follow-up with another post on the other nuances of setting. You might remember that we did give you some ideas for Places [Read the post here –> Creative writing ideas]

How to create the perfect setting of a story

1. Type of lodging

Think about where your characters live. This would be in relation to his social standing (or if he is living beyond his means through ‘other’ income you need to show this too) – so think slums, government-provided subsidized housing, apartment complexes, plush housing societies, archetypal bungalows – whatever suits your character.

Describe it the way you want but here are some pointers – the colour of the building, level of hygiene, sanitation, water problems – these are real people with real problems, at least that’s how your readers have to feel about it.

2. Now, get inside that lodging

Describe the walls, the furniture, the teapoy, details of whether there are pictures of garlanded dead ancestors with ash smeared on their foreheads, a visible clothes line with a frayed duppatta hanging from it (that might become somebody’s noose later on) or a M.F. Hussain painting.

Don’t write ten pages of how the house looks and what the things you ‘see’ are but a sentence here and there in passing: your character answers the phone and she wonders why she invested so much in a painting when she was no connoisseur of art. You have to answer that question later – to impress her even richer lover and to later on extort money in a big coup; so yes everything is there for a reason.

3. Get out of the house

So what car does she drive? Does a chauffeur drive her around? Or does the man who lives in the chawl haggle with an auto-rickshaw driver every day? How is the street – deserted or bursting at the seams with its citizens? Think about Hrithik Roshan getting into an auto (in a movie, folks!) – How will the street look?

4. Where are they going? Where is the action? At work or home?

Describe the work place – A pickle factory? Or a fireworks factory in Sivakasi? A plush office in a high-rise, perhaps?

Think about the sights and sounds and open up your character’s world to your readers.

5. Big picture

What sort of city (or town or village) is your hero living in? Mountainous terrain or coastal town? River-side or sea-shore? Does he go to a dock and sit on an abandoned boat looking at the waves crashing on the rocks below with a beer in his hand? You can describe scenic views and other elements of nature – clouds and stars and rain and weather.

6. Time

While we will talk about time in a detailed fashion in later posts, specific to this context I mean the time of the day – dawn, dusk or mid-day? Even exact hours would help to build character. Does your obsessive compulsive character peel apples at an exact time every day? 2:21 am, perhaps? How does this enhance the where? Simple – a place has to be described differently at different points in time. Think how the same place will look when it is dark and when it is bright.

If the city or country is fictional – you have more leeway. You can paint the town red or have colour-coded streets crafted in metal or even an orderly your-version-Lok Sabha where chairs (colour-coded according to pending charge-sheets starting with black being the worst) remain firmly in their places.

But, remember not to overdo it. As American author Tom Clancy says, “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

2 thoughts on “Writing about the setting of a story”

  1. krishna

    I am really very very impressed with reading your only one post itself… may be first impr is best… I love ur blog n i think it will b much helpful for my novels.. thank you …i would love to be ur frind .. genuine frnd n nothing more..if u trust me then this is my id.. Ilove to have writer friends so tat tey would also be helpful for my career like i would be…

  2. Lavanya Post Author

    @Krishna, Thank you liking our posts. Our posts are intended for writers such as you. Please do visit our site often. We hope you like our subsequent posts as much.
    Thanks!

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