How setting affects a story

I haven’t posted too much about this yet, but this month I officially started writing the first draft of my second novel. I’m right back in the throes of working out where, when, why, and how – and refreshing my memory with the basics of how to write a first draft.

Flipping from the final edits for my first novel to the total wilderness of first drafting feels like a massive shift. It’s freeing, but it’s also overwhelming. Not only is the theme and genre of novel #2 an entirely new challenge, but the setting is radically different too. So I thought I’d write a simple guide to choosing a setting for your story, using my own fiction to demonstrate how setting affects a story.

(Firstly – if you’re wondering what’s going on with my first novel since I finished, I will have some EXTREMELY exciting news about that soon, but due to the fact I’m one little boat ducking and bobbing on the wide publishing ocean, everything’s a little hush-hush at the moment. But as soon as I can I’ll be sharing it in an undoubtable explosion of hysteria and excitement, don’t you worry).

how setting affects a story - how to describe a fictional setting

The core elements of setting

There are some essential elements of setting in a story, which include:

The immediate setting – Where are the scenes set? Indoors, outdoors? How does the décor reflect the action or the characters motivations or fears?

The season – This isn’t just the temperature. The season dictates how the world looks, feels, and how the characters interacting with the setting. It gives an idea of pace and can vividly demonstrate growth or decay. It also leads directly onto…

The mood – Mood and atmosphere is a result of weather, climate, temperature, lighting… All the features that you think about when you picture a scene in your mind. I like to imagine all the bits a director, script supervisor, and cinematographer would need to control when filming a scene.

The ‘story world’ – This refers to the context beyond your story’s immediate surroundings. Think about what’s going on culturally, what are the geographical features, what influences does the past have on the present setting, etc.

Time – This includes everything from the historical period to the day of the week. When writing a first draft I like to make notes as I write, keeping track of the changing seasons and weeks so later I can work to refine the story’s…

Pacing – To me one of the most important elements of storytelling. Even if everything else is perfect and the pacing is ‘off’, it’ll be an unnatural and jarring read. A reader has to subconsciously match time with the writer so that we learn and grow as the main character does. This rule is just as vital in drama. Who hasn’t watched a film where you feel like the editing is off, you have no idea how much time has passed, and you’re juddering through the story like a road pitted with pot-holes?

Each of these core story elements needs to be looked at separately and then interwoven. After all, the historical period may well dictate the story world and the mood. In fantasy, each of these elements will need to be built from scratch, but using real historical periods or physical locations as a starting point and then twisting them can often produce wonderfully uncanny results.

how setting affects a story - get creative
Get creative

How setting affects a story

Since the story settings are so radically different, I’ll use my two novels to explain how setting affects a story, and how you can shape your setting (or settings) to create metaphor and added meaning.

In the novel I recently finished (we’ll call this one novel#1) 75% of the action takes place within one house, and in the novel I’ve just started drafting (we’ll call this one novel#2) 90% of the action takes place outdoors, across moors, marshes, mountains, and woodlands.

Each is a deliberate choice, and has a huge impact on the mood, atmosphere, and themes of the story. I’ll look at each one in turn to show how the setting fits with the story.

 

The house

How setting affects a story

Within the first chapters of the story, the protagonists move into and decorate the house. I used this to demonstrate their interactions with each other, and also as a visual depiction of their personality. They use a lot of rich plums and bottle green paint which darkens the mood and foreshadow events which come later.

As the story is an intimate depiction of both control and ‘inverted relationships’, I wanted scenes to appear comforting but feel claustrophobic. As the story progresses, I wanted to demonstrate with minimal exposition how she tries to control her surroundings by holing herself up and even feverishly trying to cut down the ever-growing weeds in her back yard.

Staging drama in a confined space often highlights tension and conflict. You can see it in your mind’s eye – imagine a couple having a blazing row in a living room and then having the same argument in an open field. Inside, the voices are loud, echoing from the walls, but outside the words are lost in such a wide space. Inside, even a whisper can grate, whereas outside it’s likely to be lost on the breeze.

Of course I didn’t only think about the interior. A terrace house, ‘confined by its borders and held up by its brothers’. I wanted the house to feel crushed, hidden, a secret. The long rows of Victorian terraces around the house add to the labyrinthine sensation.

 

The wilderness

How setting affects a story

As I’ve only just started this novel – my ideas here will be a bit more loose. I’m aiming for the landscape to be as much of a character as the protagonist. Each part of the landscape should reflect a part of the protagonist’s state of mind, and provide various challenges or ‘internal quests’.

I wanted the setting here to be entirely the opposite of novel#1. While the first deals a lot with control, the second is an absolute relinquishing of control. In fact – the wilderness is unpredictable, and provides a strong antagonist to rival the protagonist’s goals.

The protagonist’s cabin (little more than a wooden shack) is also a reminder of the comfortable life he’s given up to be there, and his flaky emotional state while in the wilderness.

 

How to choose a setting for your story

Once you have an idea for how setting can enhance your story, how do you go about visualising it?

Scout similar areas – visit roads, towns, landscapes that look similar to what you want to create. Take photos and write notes, taking in the smells, sounds, the texture of the ground… Everything you notice – no matter how odd (the odder the better, I say).

How setting affects a story
Silver shoes help to reflect the idea UP
How setting affects a story
Me – Scouting landscapes for the next big writing adventure…

Illustrate a map – if you’re creating a fantasy place, draw out the landscape and label the geographical features. Draw floor plans of houses and street maps too – anything that’ll keep your imagination from ruining your story’s continuity.

Create a Pinterest board – I love Pinterest. Set up a secret board and use the site like a search engine to pull together a mood-board of textures, colours, people, and places.

Create a photo collage – use free sites like Canva to create photo collages to pin up by your writing desk. If it’s just for your own use, use Google images, or if you’re showcasing it somewhere (like I am now) use free stock image websites like Unsplash. I created two collages for novels#1 and #2 in Canva to demonstrate…

How setting affects a story

How setting affects a story

One final piece of advice I’ll give would be to be skeptical about writers and editors who say you need a minimum number of settings in a story. I disagree wholeheartedly. It’s how your characters INTERACT with your settings that matter, so whether you’re story takes place over 7 continents or all in one tiny room, sometimes less can be more.

So go forth and draw up your fictional settings! You could really write a book about how to choose a setting for your story (many writers have), and I’ve really condensed it down here – even though it’s one of my longer blogs!

Looking for more help writing your novel? Take a look at the blogs in my ‘how to be a writer’ blog collection for a range of blogs covering everything from what happens during the production of a chapbook to writing and editing the second draft of your novel.

If you have any comments please post them below, or I’d love to see the mood boards and collages you create!

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