Settings in Stories: The Right Details Make a Difference

picture of beach with a phrase about settings for writers

The right details matter when you write settings in stories

In stories, fiction writers usually are in one of two camps—excessive detail or not enough. Let’s take a look at what you’ll learn in this article about settings for stories.

Using your senses helps bring your setting to life. It’s natural to “see” things in our stories, but how does your setting smell or sound? A bakery smells vastly different than a landfill. What does the environment feel like? Is it sandy, gritty, or smooth under their feet? Are they standing on cool, grass dotted with morning dew? We’ll deep-dive into each sense with examples to help you strengthen your story telling skills.

We’ll look at topics like geography, time (of day, year, and era), climate, and simple things like how crowded an area is. Your description, setting, is vital to ground the reader. Each will be something to consider, but only you will know which elements will work best in your story. A contemporary story will need different choices than a historical story. Geography may be crucial to your sci-fi fiction, but not as important to a romance.

Setting is not only a place and time, but also a way to set the mood of a story. Picture the difference in starting your story on a loud, thunderous stormy night as opposed to a spring morning offering the smell of fragrant flowers and a light breeze. Each of these would change the feel of the story. It’s important to consider each element when crafting your scene.

We’ll also look at mixing things up to make the setting more interesting, because setting can reveal character. Somebody who grew up in the city will look at the city through different eyes than another person’s first experience in a city. Let characters show themselves by their unique reactions.

Settings for Stories: Finding the Right Balance

When looking at settings in stories, you’ll want to pick and choose which pieces make the most impact. Overlayer details and you may drown your reader in endless purple prose that doesn’t move the story forward. Not enough detail, and your story may feel stark and empty. Let’s find a good balance.

A big mistake a lot of new writers make is excessive detail about your setting as your book opens on chapter 1. Setting should be delicately layered in and add something to the story. The story is not about your place. It’s about the character. Something happens to the character. The character wants something. The character attempts to get that something. The character grows in the course of the story. The setting is simply where it takes place. Do not make the mistake of making the setting bigger and more important than the character.

Senses in Storytelling

Senses in storytelling.

See, smell, touch, taste, and hear.

We’re visual beings, so most people are comfortable writing description from the point of seeing it. We see flickering flames of orange, yellows, and a tinge of blue if you look closely. But what do you hear? Listen closely. The firewood crackles. What do you feel? Sit close enough and the heat encompasses you in a warm, cozy sensation. When I was a child, I used to sit on the bricks in front of the fireplace. I’d stay there until my back got so hot I had to quickly escape for a few moments to cool off, challenging myself to see how long I could handle the heat. That sensation brings me back to my childhood. The smell of the wood was familiar and comforting. Depending on the type of firewood you use, the scent is different. Is it pine, oak, maple, or mesquite?

Examples of Setting Details

Let’s do a comparison for an example, and look at the differences between a bonfire at the beach vs a fireplace on a romantic evening at home.

If you simply say there was a fire going, we’d visualize things in a way we’re familiar if you don’t offer enough details. Bring them to the bonfire. The lull of the ocean waves crashing rhythmically in the background. The sand is cool now that the sun has gone down. Circles of people surround the fire and sing songs, as a friend strums on his guitar. Can you picture the bonfire? The flames are untamed and jumping high from the random mix of firewood and fuels.

If you’re writing a romantic setting, rather than groups of people, now you’re in an intimate setting. Two people, pressed close, watching the flickering flames as they discuss their new engagement. The room is aglow, washed in shadows. Maybe music plays low in the background, a stereo piping out one of Beegie Adair’s piano tunes. They are holding hands, the skin contact draws them together, adding another layer of intimacy.

Do you see how writing about a fire can go in many directions? Imagine the adrenaline rush of a fireman as he pulls up to a three-alarm building fire. Or imagine the scent of sulfur as you strike a match to light a candle. Fire is a simple word. Without vivid description, you’re doing your reader a disservice. Bring them into the story with descriptors. Don’t simply rely on the way something looks. Whether you’re looking at a bonfire, a newly struck match, or a house fire, you’ll see oranges, yellows, and maybe reds. That doesn’t differentiate things enough. Give them more. Feed your reader’s senses.

Here’s another one.

Picture the wind in your face. What did you imagine? A skier might relish in the biting cold hitting their face. A horseback rider might love the way the wind ruffles their hair. Somebody in a convertible might get lost in the rush of air hitting their cheeks. Have you ever seen a dog stick his head out of a car window? He likes the feel of the wind on his face, too!

If somebody writes, the wind was in his face…we’ll all picture something different. Help your reader embrace your story with the right details.

Be Specific with your Story Settings

Why did you choose the location that you did? If you can pick up your story and move it from a beach resort to a ski resort, you didn’t get specific enough. Your settings in stories should be there for a reason.

There should be a reason you chose the story setting that you did. Your setting is a part of the story. Bring it to life. Active setting is like a secondary character, a piece of the story that adds to the depth.

Layer your details. No need to overdo it, but give your reader a couple of layers to draw them in. We don’t need to know that the ravaged wood on the side of the ship was carved with a knife made of brass and steel forged over a fire by hand, or that it was then polished to a high shine years before all the wear and tear. It’s assumed the boat was once new. Ravage tells us it’s a boat that’s been through a lot of weather and wear.

Now, if your story takes place on that boat, you might want to add another layer to give it more character. We know that it’s ravaged, but maybe there’s something else unique about this ship.

Could the sails be heavily patched and almost thread bare, because the captain’s fortune has turned, and he’s trying to keep the boat from being retired with his meager savings? Now we’re learning something new.

Boat. Sails. Boring. But, give those sails character and let them be a piece of the story, and people are now interested. We know something more about the captain and the ship.

Note: If you write fantasy worlds and universes… World building is a thing of its own. If you’re writing fantasy, I’d suggest a resource called “Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.” World building is not one of my strengths, and I can’t do justice to that topic, but Wonderbook can.

Use Metaphors in your Settings

It was as big as a rocket on a launch pad vs. it was as big as a house. One is massive, while one is kind of big, huh?

It was as loud as a crashing symbol vs. the loud bark of a dog.  

Those images have more of an impact when you use a metaphor. It amplifies that descriptive element. Now, let’s use this idea with setting. We can either use it by showing how the setting is touching the character, or simply in the environment itself. Let’s look at both options.

Character: She stood at the edge of the jagged cliff. Her feet trembled like a nervous boy’s hand on a first date.  

Environment: The jagged cliff jutted out of the earth, threatening a steep fall to those who inched too close.

Let’s do another:

Character: The long, dusty road set her asthma afire. She was certain her lungs would seize up at any moment.

Environment: The long, dusty path set off like a poor man’s version of the Yellow Brick Road, promising a way out of the broken-down town.

How can you make changes to the setting in your story? Will you layer it? Bring it to life? Invite the reader into your story? Small changes can have a big impact. Look at your writing and see where you can strengthen your storytelling with setting.

Another ideas is to look into writing workshops on an area of craft you’d like to improve on. This is a perfect opportunity to learn more about settings in stories.

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