Apr 23

Establishing the setting

Establishing the setting



When thinking about establishing the setting for your story it is helpful to find things that can be used to help to create atmosphere, rather than just provide a physical description of where the action takes place. It is actually not necessary for the reader to imagine the physical scene exactly as the writer saw it in his or her mind’s eye.
(Some scene-setting descriptions seem to suggest that the author thinks it is very important, and they are often too long, sometimes boring and usually doomed to fail. However meticulous a description, it can only go so far and the reader’s imagination will, and should have a role. Reading is not meant to be a totally passive activity!)
Their memories and experiences will add colour to the perceptions of the reader and it is more useful to give some clues to atmosphere, style and feel of a place than a blow by blow description. Do not be afraid to use a few stereotypes or well-chosen clichés to evoke that atmosphere in descriptions and then get on with the story. Used sparingly and appropriately clichés are acceptable (although overdone and twee, they can be irritating and distracting).
For example:
Evocative buildings


There is no doubt that some buildings have associations or atmospheres that evoke certain moods or responses.

Types of buildings that come to mind are churches, windmills, thatched cottages, castles, old pubs, inner city tower blocks, theatres….

Including a building in the opening scene of the story can be an excellent way to give clues as to the genre, atmosphere, style and mood of the piece. The mention of an architectural style can sometimes indicate clearly the period, country, or whether in a rundown area or a smart part of town, small town or city……

To see a writing group session suggestion based on this post read ‘Creating the setting’

Similarly, and maybe additionally you can use the weather very effectively in setting your story. Mention dark, brooding clouds and you automatically provoke feelings and expectations in your reader, particularly if an isolated, crumbling old church or castle also appears in the scene.


Dress is useful. It can provide instant information about period, place, status of characters, very effectively if you want it to. (Or it can deliberately tease as in the opening of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where it turns out that the man in the shabby hat, carrying the basket is the squire, greeted respectfully by his social inferior, the man on horseback. Much information is given but there is a misdirection which provides an interesting twist at the start of the novel.)


Geographical features, such as canals, hedgerows, mountains, barren landscapes, navigable rivers can all be used in similar ways to show, rather than tell the reader about the setting.


Items typical of a place or culture can capture the scene in a single well constructed sentence, as can the mention of a famous event, a landmark or regional food.

Paella, a typical Spanish food.

Paella, typical Spanish food.

Seasons have associations with mood and emotions that can be tapped into easily. A brief reference to a beautiful day will enhance the impression of a happy character, at the start of the story at least. Winter gloom or persistent rain can create an atmosphere instantly, in very few words.

Just as with characters, it is a mistake to try to describe the setting of a piece as if it were a static picture, a photograph that you want the reader to ‘see’ in minute detail. Give it depth and colour by using some of the ideas above and the reader will see much more that is relevant to your story than the colour of the doors or the height of the fence or the number of chimneys, none of which they will remember anyway, unless some such detail plays a crucial part in the actual plot and action!
Category: Advice and Info. Tags: Creative writing, stereotyping, description

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