A Writer’s Guide to Setting

The place and time of a story is part of the story. If you change the setting the story changes too.

Every story happens somewhere. But if you’ve got great action and compelling characters, does it really matter where it happens? Of course it does! Setting matters. The place and time of a story is part of the story. If you change the setting the story changes too.

Would Black Panther be the same story without Wakanda?

Would The Little Princess be the same story without Miss Minchin’s School for Girls?

Would Harry Potter be the same story without Hogwarts?

The place we live changes us. We interact with it. It influences our actions, shapes our emotions, and forces us to make choices. I would be a different person today if I’d spent the last fifteen years in Chicago instead of in rural and northern Manitoba. But the setting isn’t just the physical place. The looks and smells, tastes and sounds are essential but it’s the social structures, the people, the things that are “normal” in that place that make a place what it is.

So where should you start when you’re thinking about setting?

What are the rules?

Setting is the unspoken rules of the place you’re writing about. You’re the author so you decide what the rules are. Does your story happen in the real world? Those rules already exist so make sure you know the details of the place, time, and people you’re writing about. If you get them wrong your readers will know. If you’re not writing in the real world then you can be creative with the rules. Is there magic? If there is how does it work? How do class, race, sex, government, money, business, and technology function in the world you’re writing about? Once you’ve established the rules stick with them.

It’s all in the details

No two people experience the world in exactly the same way and no two characters should either.

Whether you’re writing about a real or an imaginary place the key to making it feel real is to pay attention to the world around you and notice how it works. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you understand how the world works for everyone just because you live in it. The only thing you understand without thinking too much about it is how the world feels and works for you. Unless you’re writing an autobiography that won’t help with your story because the lives and experiences of your characters won’t be the same as yours. No two people experience the world in exactly the same way and no two characters should either.

Pay attention

The best place to start with setting is to spend time paying attention to world around you. It’s full of information and details. Notice them. Go somewhere and just notice.

  • What does this place feel like? Say you picked a busy sidewalk in big city. Notice what being in a busy street feels like. How does it change when you’re in a hurry or if you’re just going for a walk? How is it different for you than it is for that busy mom who’s trying to herd three kids, than it is for that impeccably dressed woman in heels, than it is for that man in a wheelchair?
  • What does this place look, smell, and sound like? Collect these things and remember them. If you’re writing about a specific place then especially notice the details that are unique to that place (eg. a busy sidewalk in Montreal looks, feels, and smells different than a busy sidewalk in Detroit.)
  • What happens in this place? Lots of different things happen on a busy sidewalk. People rush by, people sit and wait, people panhandle, people greet each other, ignore each other, avoid one another, or try to engage. The kinds of things that happen are different in every place. What happens in a place where you buy food, a place where people spend time together outside, or a place where people gather to learn?

Think it through

What are the implications of the things that are true in your story? These things will be different depending on the people and places you’re writing about. Think about the implications of these three different story settings:

  • A young Indigenous single mother lives in a small prairie town in 1890.
  • A rich black man with no children lives in Montreal in 1950.
  • A middle class white woman is pregnant and lives with her husband in the suburbs of Toronto in 2020.

What are the unspoken rules that each of these people have to follow? Your story will be completely different for each of these people in each of these places. Historical fiction authors will notice the importance of the time to the setting. The Amulet would be a very different story if it happened in Frog Lake in 2020 rather than in 1885!

Keep in mind that small changes make a big difference. For example, life in a small prairie town is very different if you’re a white man who farms cattle than if you’re an Indigenous woman who works at the local grocery store. And this is true of imaginary worlds too. Life in that small prairie town would be infinitely different if you suddenly added superpowers to the mix. (Check out Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon and Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart for really great examples of thinking through how changing one thing, like powers or an alien, to an otherwise normal world would completely change everything.)

Some things to think about when you’re writing setting:

  • Is this your story to tell? Some stories and settings should be written by the people who live them. Are you centering your voice in a place where it might be better to uplift the voices of people who truly understand that place?
  • If you’re writing about a place you can’t get to either because it isn’t real or you don’t have access to it how can you learn what that place feels like? Can you talk to, listen to, or read stories of people who have been there? Can you go to similar places? (eg. J.K. Rowling probably never explored a school for wizards but she’s probably spent time in a school of some sort.)
  • People and their setting are inseperable. You can’t think about one without thinking about the other. When you change one, you change the other.
This week’s assignment:

Take a story you love and pull out the details of the setting. Notice what went into creating it. Notice the things that are true in the story. Notice how the characters are influenced by or interact with the setting and how that changes them.

I’m writing with you,

Laurie, HF Associate Editor

Photo by John Roberts on Unsplash

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