Setting - Why it Can Make or Break Your Story

by Marg McAlister


"The setting of your story."

Hmmmm. I have to admit, 'setting' doesn't sound like a topic that will have you on the edge of your seat with excitement. In fact, I can almost see you yawning now.

Compared to the mental gymnastics involved in figuring out the plot and sub-plots, and the agonising you can do over creating characters that will win readers, 'setting' sounds pedestrian indeed. After all, all you have to do is describe something, right?

your story setting

Maybe a house; maybe a car. An office building or a ranch... a school or an ocean liner. What's the big problem? Description is description, after all: it's not rocket science.


Wrong. Dead wrong.

Oh, sure, you can go ahead and "describe" the object or person or event in your book against the setting you've chosen. You can look at pictures and accurately recount the colour of something and what it's made of... and throw in a dash of what it smells like, perhaps, to 'bring it to life'. But... you need to do a lot more than this.

Why do so many readers skip over description of the setting? Why do so many authors type out a grudging sentence or two as an afterthought?

In short: they don't truly see its relevance.

That one word sums it up.


 If you don't truly understand the relevance of your setting, then you're not going to do it justice in your book. And if the READER can't see the relevance of what you've written, they're not going to spend time on it. (That breeze you can feel has been created by the reader flipping through the pages to find something more interesting to read.)

Relevance means that the setting is so integral to your story that it can't be extracted without affecting the whole flow and meaning of the story. It means that you CAN'T just jam in a few details to satisfy readers who want to 'see' where the story is taking place; rather, you'll be including these vital details without even thinking about it, because it's so important to your story.

Here are a few quick examples of setting done well, from Sandy Fussell's short-listed book, POLAR BOY:

"Silence settles on the darkness like soft powder snow." (Inside an igloo at night when it's time to sleep.)

"Nana's face is crinkled like caribou hide, brown and withered hard." and (also about Nana) "Sometimes when she wakes in the morning, she looks like she has travelled a thousand miles. Her eyes are tired and her lips are swollen with the cold."

"Finn is the same age as me but his tracking skills are old. Like Papa, he navigates by searching the sky, reading the ice patterns reflected in the clouds. Dark patterns for the sea close beneath the surface and light for safe, thick ice."

Was it hard for me to find examples that make this ice-bound setting vivid and real for readers? Not at all... because in this book, the setting influences the way the characters think, the way they speak, and everything they do.

To ensure that your setting is just as relevant, use this checklist:

  1. Do I show the setting through the viewpoint character's eyes? 
  2. Have I ensured that the setting influences the way characters think, feel, and act? 
  3. Have I used the five senses to bring my setting to life? 
  4. Have I used the setting, where possible, to create extra conflict or provide more hurdles for my characters to overcome? 
  5. Am I mining the setting to build suspense? 
  6. Have I put myself in the setting to 'test' possible actions and reactions? 
  7. Have I done the necessary research to get it right? Where possible, have I: 
    • watched videos / TV shows / movies 
    • visited the setting, or 
    • talked to people who have worked/lived there
  8. - to ensure as much accuracy as possible?  
  9. Have I experimented with different ways to show the same setting? 
  10. Have I thought about how the setting might impact people of different classes, different ethnic groups, different gender, different beliefs? 
  11. Have I chosen the most telling/most vivid details to invoke the setting, rather than rambling for paragraphs (thus risking reader boredom)? 
  12. Have I checked current maps and satellite views of the area? 
  13. Have I tweaked the details of the setting to suit the genre? (That is, romance, suspense, thriller etc... a different slant on the same setting can have a huge impact on the novel.)

Use the twelve suggestions above as a starting point to create your own setting checklist for every story you write. And remember the key word: RELEVANCE!

© Marg McAlister


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