“It was a dark and stormy night…” – Opening sentence of Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830.
Even if it best reflects the weather conditions outside, this overused opening phrase has become a great cliché of bad fiction writing. But before it is thrown into the abyss for good, let’s take a look at why it has been so pervasive in fiction for the past two hundred years. This article will look at the setting of a story and why it is so important and how you can skillfully incorporate it into your own writing.
What Is the Setting of a Story?
The setting of a story is when and where the story occurs. The time and place serve as anchors for a specific atmosphere to be established within the text.
Setting of a story
“It was a dark and stormy night” does what it was meant to do – it establishes the setting of a story. Setting generally focuses on the time and place within the story you are trying to tell. It was night (time), and the night was dark and stormy (it doesn’t quite tell us the exact place, but we know it is a place that is dark and stormy.) Yet, the opening line manages to do more than only establish a time and place.
Time and Place
When and where does the story take place? There are infinite possibilities. It could be the Stone Age, or it could be a Wednesday in London. It could be any period in time or some completely different universe. The place might be a physical place or even a metaphysical place.
Many variables can be considered when pondering the setting of a story. The time period and physical location are a great starting place, whether it be a real-life story or a work of fiction. But what more can the setting do?
Why Is Setting Important?
The setting is important because it helps in projecting the overall mood of a story. It lets authors provoke the readers’ emotions. For instance, if the setting were to take place in an old dingy orphanage established in 1994, that has not been cared for or renovated. The reader may pity the orphans for their terrible living conditions. The setting also suggestions that the children may not be well cared for.
However, if the orphanage was tidy, clean, modernized, and had a pleasant homey aura, the reader might feel that the orphans live happily and are looked after during their time at the orphanage. A change in setting can shift the overall flow of the story.
The setting also creates an opportunity to add detail to the characters and introduce conflicts. For example, a toxic environment in a highly developed city may justify or explain why a character suffers from anxiety, therefore introducing the character as anxious and highlighting the internal conflict they are experiencing. It also gives hints about the story’s message, foreshadows essential plot details, and affects the language used by the characters as language evolves as time passes. Such as, a story set in the 90s would be very different from a story set in 2022 in terms of message, plot details, and language used by the characters.
How Does the Setting Contribute to the Story?
The setting contributes to the story by forming the expectations of the reader. For example, if the story is set in a dark, cold, isolated forest. This sets the scene for what may come next. The setting contributes to the story in terms of being an integral element in crafting the flow of the plot, presenting character traits, and inserting major conflicts.
Setting also dictates which character traits and behaviors are possible and which are not. For example, people’s uncivilized and violent deeds are likely to dominate in a story that possesses the setting, “the period before civilization.” In contrast, in a story that happens in a modernized world, characters are expected to be law-abiding citizens, except for some characters, especially the antagonist. If these modern people behaved as if they lived thousand years ago, then that presents a disconnection between characterization and setting, which confuses the reader. The setting has the power to shape the story.
The chosen setting can contribute to the plot’s success or make the story vague, uninteresting, and illogical. Whichever the setting fulfils depends on its alignment with the story, characters, and conflicts. When you decide on a story’s setting, you could consider human emotions such as what places and time frames cause fear, anger, disgust, loneliness, and enjoyment. Below are some setting ideas you can use, enhance, and tailor to match your story’s plot.
- crowded airport
- renovated animal shelter
- old museum
- on-sale bookstore
- scary lighthouse
- nursing home
- mysterious valley
- water park
- freezing mountain
- odd castle
- deserted island
- dilapidated factory
- famous tower
- tattoo shops
- police station
- amusement park
- miraculous cave
- most-visited beach
- children’s playground
- prestigious university
- coffee shops
- retreat houses
- abandoned hospital
Begin Creating The Perfect Setting In Your Story
1. Establishing tone
Notice that the opening line, “a dark and stormy night,” uses the description of the setting to establish a mood or tone. It goes beyond being just a physical place in time to being a storytelling tool, and using those kinds of tools makes a stronger story.
Yet if you look a little deeper into the purposes of the story setting, you can find a much more meaningful connection to the story you are trying to tell and the characters and ideas within it.
The use of the word “dark” implies a sense of aloneness and potential vulnerability. The word “stormy” also implies a potential danger, especially if something goes wrong in the dark. The writer is already starting to plant something in your mind while using very few words to do it.
If Bulwer-Lytton had written it as “It was a warm and cozy evening…”, how would the tone differ and establish the setting in the story? It would establish a completely different feeling – and an even more vague setting! But this shows you the difference between the tone of the two and how the setting of a story has the possibility to play a significant role in anything you write.
2. Experiencing a setting through the main character
Whether establishing a story setting for a fictional world or one based on real life, the reader sees the world through the main character’s eyes and perspective. That gives writers a wealth of information to work with, such as a physical location, the character’s life, and their cultural surroundings.
You might get further details like a geographical location or a more specific setting, but more often than not, the setting will be experienced through the main character.
As we all do, characters experience the world through sensory experiences, so using the five senses is a vital way to convey setting detail. Characters can see and hear the world as they experience it (or cannot experience it), and how they see or hear it (or not) will be filtered by their own perspectives.
They might find the smells and tastes of a place like New York City as refreshing and exhilarating, or they might find the bright lights and noise make them feel trapped by sensory overload and anxiety depending on their own personal history.
The same character might feel at home in the stark contrast of a small town or even a different time period, where they would have a different range of sensory experiences. The setting becomes much more than just “time and place” when interlaced with character development.
Sensory details and setting descriptions filtered through your character’s lives makes your reader’s experience richer and more meaningful, as they are emotionally immersed into the setting you are building.
Expressing the world as experienced through characters lives
Whether you are writing about World War II or Middle Earth, your settings will be experienced by the people (or Hobbits) you are writing about. The geographical location or the historical period you explore will be felt and experienced by your characters as they grow. This can be used from short stories to epic novels. It’s often used in non-fiction writing as a means to help a reader connect with the people in the story.
Other Things to Consider When Creating Your Story Setting
Before you begin writing, you might be attached to a specific setting or timeline. You might already be set on writing science fiction, historical fiction, or setting it in New York City. It doesn’t matter if you want to set your narrative at Hogwarts School. There will always be room for strengthening the elements of your story through the setting.
It might be tempting to flesh out your world with a comprehensive backdrop setting of the world you created, but do the details move your story forward? When you consider world-building or establishing the decor of a tea room, don’t inundate your reader with too much information. You’ll lose them in the details.
Consider which details are most important and most relevant
You can weave in the details you want to be there but focus on the history that is going to strengthen the present in your story. Your readers are smart people; they’re going to fill in the rest of the details in their heads. You can afford to be efficient here – and save your words for other details.
The setting of a story can greatly be influenced by sociological factors affecting the people, history, or even the architecture in your story. If you’re writing science fiction, you might consider how humans have come to be treated by alien colonists and how class division has affected the world around them.
If you’re setting your story within a specific time period, you might do some research to see how various groups of people lived at the time. The setting will tell you a lot about your characters and vice versa.
This might be the first thing people think of when they think of the setting. Location is essential, as it has a significant effect on all other details in the story. Is your story set in your neighborhood in modern-day or in 19th century Ireland?
The landscape or the world you are introducing will need a strong description of the geographic location (don’t forget to use the five senses) to really establish where the story is unfolding.
Be careful, though; just like with historical details, too many will lose your reader. You want to focus on details that will help move your story forward or give some illustration to the world around your characters. Trust your reader’s imaginations to do the rest.
The mental state of your character(s)
This also comes back to experiencing the setting through character. How one character might see a beautiful autumn day can vary greatly from the next. “The beautiful cascade of colors flashed on the leaves flitting along the ground” might be one character’s perception of a setting while the next might see the same thing as “Fall. The time when things die, and their organic waste litters the world of the living.” Then, of course, there is character development and how the setting might affect that, or vice versa.
Time and place as a sliding scale
Think of “time” and “place” as two sliding lines. Of course, “time” is already a linear line (or is it?), but “place” can be endless things. So if you are fascinated with the history of India, you might consider which part of that timeline interests you most and would best suit the story you want to tell.
When you start getting into areas such as science fiction or the strange history of a plaza hotel, you can see how integral the setting can be to the outcome of your story.
Setting and Pace
Typically speaking, a great deal of establishing a setting will come at the beginning of your story. That’s not to say you won’t use elements of setting later, but if your location isn’t changing or you are staying within a certain place, it’s unlikely that you will focus as much on these details toward the end of your story or book.
However, don’t forget to use these details in your descriptions because they will still illuminate the tone of your story as well as your character’s experiences within them.
The setting is as much a part of the story as what your characters feel or do. Setting can affect their behavior and play a role in the story itself. It can be a backdrop setting, or it can be a deciding factor in the outcome.
A great setting is revealed with the use of sensory information such as what a mountain range looks like, or what the air feels like on the skin, or how the sound of the wind in the trees tickles the tips of one’s fingers. But it can also reflect a person’s outlook or even change their outlook. It doesn’t have to just be a snapshot of the natural world; it is whatever you want your reader to experience when they read your work.
With descriptions of your setting, use effective adverbs and adjectives that create the necessary feeling for your narrative, but avoid overuse. Strings of adjectives can become tedious, and adverbs are powerful, but too much power can make your writing look cartoonish. Find the right balance of description with sensory information, and the reader will be taken along seamlessly for the ride.
Setting can make your entire story – just look at what happened at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. It can be a background player as well, adding details to any scene when the time is right. The setting is as essential as any creative tool that you have, up with character development and plot structure.
When outlining your next writing project, don’t forget the vital role that story setting can play. It isn’t just “a dark and stormy night.” The subtext of those few words implies that it’s also a dreary, loathsome, bitter, howling, damp, and cold night, but in far fewer words.