Four Ingredients of Story: Setting

This week, we’re focusing our attention on the subtlest of the four ingredients of story – setting. Setting gives shape to a story. Without it, the characters would float in space and theplot would come across as a string of random events. Setting is the 3D of writing. It turns story into a world and if you pay attention to describing that world, you’ll hook your readers in.

It’s easy to think of setting as pretty green fields. Certainly if you read a lot of the Irish masters, you would think that’s what it was. But setting refers to both the place and the time a story is set.

You could decide to set your story in your own place and time. This gives you a chance to see the world around you with fresh eyes. You may have a fascination with a particular time in history or another country. That may inspire you to use those as the setting. If you describe your world vividly enough, you will give your reader a passport into it.

So how do you create this vivid effect?

Find the Extraordinary within the Ordinary. Describe a room in your house. You’ll be amazed what you suddenly notice. Do a holiday brochure for your chosen location. Or write about somewhere really ugly, to discover that inspiration can be found in the most unlikely places.

Become a Time Traveller. Imagine you have travelled to the time your characters live in. What would you notice about it? How would you compare it to the time in which you live?

Get Your Characters Involved. If your setting isn’t coming alive for you, write a description of the place the character lives in from the point of view of your character. What do they notice about it? How do they like being there?

Get Drawing: If you’re lucky enough to be a visual person, draw a map of the place where you will set your story, or a timeline of important dates. That way, you’ll see it in your mind.

Evoke the Senses. Think of the sights, sounds and smells that you would associate with your setting. For example, your story may be set in a school. Can you remember what your own school smelt like? How the rooms were laid out? What sounds you heard? By calling on the reader’s senses, you’ll be getting them to experience the world the way characters do.

If setting is done right, it makes your story come alive. It can be the most difficult ingredient to get right, because of its subtlety, but you will reap the rewards if you persevere.

For an object lesson in how to use setting to vivid effect, read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It lifts the veil and brings you into the Afghanistan behind the headlines.

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