Creating a Setting That Paints a Picture

What’s your favorite book or piece of literature of all time? Think of the one book that still resonates with you. Now visualize the story in your mind. What scenes flash before you? Can you visualize the place, the time period, the characters, or the background? If the answer is yes, the literature did a good job of describing the setting.

Whether you’re writing a non-fiction piece or a fictional tale, the setting is one of the most important elements of your story. The setting paints a picture of your scene or story by describing the time, place, location, and social environment. The setting should keep your reader grounded by telling them the what, the where, the when, and the why. A good setting should be a lyrical photograph of the story you want to tell. Creating your setting is the anchor point of your story. It sets the mood and tone for your scenes and it should make the reader feel like they’re a fly on the wall in your story. A setting should make the reader feel transported to the scene.

Have you ever had a friend tell you a story that was missing information and you thought to yourself, what in the world are they talking about? You probably stopped them to ask questions about the backstory to get a better understanding. On the hand, you probably heard a story that gave too much information and you just wanted them to get to the point already. This is the challenge that you must overcome when creating your setting. The writer job is to give enough details so the reader can visualize the character’s environment without overloading them with information.

Take this scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:

The Maycomb jail was the most venerable and hideous of the county buildings…Starkly out of place in a town of square-faced stores and steep-roofed houses, the Maycomb jail was a miniature Gothic joke one cell wide and tow cells high, complete with tiny battlements and flying buttresses.

The writer quickly describes the Maycomb jail and the environment that surrounds it. It gives enough details to paint a picture but leaves enough room in your imagination to fill in some blanks.

When brainstorming on how to describe your story’s settings, consider in the following elements:

Location- Location can be as broad as a country or specific as a house on a neighborhood block.Time- Time can be described in terms of time of year, day, or elapsed time.Atmosphere or Mood- This describes tangible factors that influence the story such as weather, climate, or the emotional state of your story’s population due to an event.

Geography-Geography in your setting will describe the physical features of the earth and its relation to people and their environment. History- This would include important events such as wars or eras linked to the plot or character development of the story.Population- Describes the people within the backdrop of your story. Are you describing millions of residents in New York City or rural town with a population of five hundred?

Remember that your setting is the framework of the story. You want it to surround your story with just enough details and descriptions that the readers knows where your story is going and where it has been.


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