Close your eyes. Take a moment and imagine being in the middle of a forest. What comes immediately to mind? You probably thought tall green trees, grass under your feet, and maybe birds calling in the distance. And that's all fine and dandy. Yes, when you write that, people get the picture. But do they FEEL like they are in the forest? Or are they just picturing it? This is the difference between a mediocre setting and an expertly crafted one. You don't want your readers to feel like they're "watching" your characters interacting with the world around them. They want to get sucked in and experience it for themselves.
Building a setting that will resonate with your readers is easier than you think! Today we're going to start by taking a walk out in the elements. We'll be exploring the 12 fundamentals that make up a setting. Piece by piece we will use them to create a realistic scene that will draw your readers into your fictional world and make them want to live there.
The 12 Elements of Setting
Location is made up of different details. Start from the outside and work your way in. First consider what country, kingdom, state, and region your story takes place in. Next consider what city, town, village, or neighborhood specifically. From there take it a step further, pick a street, house, school, or any other building where events may take place. You can also opt for locales such as islands, shorelines, farms, rural areas, etc. Be creative!
2. Time of year
You can bring so much depth into your setting through your time of year choice. Yes, it refers to seasons, but also keep in mind that you have holidays and significant dates to choose from as well. While holidays like Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Halloween make great backdrops for stories, so do anniversary dates for marriages, birthdays, divorces, funerals, battles like Gettysburg, and dates significant to your character specifically can all bring backstory into your setting with minimal effort.
3. Time of day
Time of day also should be factored into your choices. You've only got two options here: day or night, but you can vary the exact timeframe by choosing dusk, dawn, mid-afternoon, etc. Having a specific indication of time creates an easy visual for your readers, as we association certain actions with each section of the day.
4. Elapsed Time
Another element of time that you should pay attention to is how time passes within your story. It's not just about the pacing of your narrative, though that contributes to the way time feels too. On a literal note, your readers need to understand the time-frame that your story encompasses. I'm talking about the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months. If you don't establish how long it takes for your character to complete their quest then your audience will grow confused. Also keep in mind that your story unfolds moment to moment, through flashbacks, when characters travel long distances, and all the little down-time scenes in between.
5. Mood and atmosphere
Keep track of the way certain events make your characters feel and act. People are affected by weather, temperature, lighting, their basic needs, etc. These factors should influence the emotions, mood, and atmosphere of the scene. For example, if your character is in the middle of a fierce battle against their nemesis and it isn't going well, maybe they're starting to lose hope. You can add to the defeated attitude of the moment by having it pour in the background, adding to the misery by making her and her allies cold and wet.
When you choose the locale for your story, keep climate in mind as well. Geography and topography play roles in the way weather works for each region. It directly correlates to the way people and events unfold. Ocean currents, prevailing winds and air masses, latitude, altitude, mountains, land masses, and large bodies of water are all details you can use. It's always a good idea to do your research on a climate before you write about it. If you're writing about a desert, then you'll be dealing with a drastically varying climate that is harsh in the afternoon and devastatingly cold at night. It can make for lots of hardships for your character. On the flip side, if you choose a warmer plains environment in the middle of spring, resources will be more abundant, it may be rainier, and overall easier to navigate.
This refers to the various forms of land and water masses. It's the specifics of water, landforms, ecosystems, and topography. It includes climate, soil, plants, trees, rocks and minerals, and soils. This is a great way to add physical challenges that your character must overcome throughout your story, like mountains, rivers, oceans, etc. These landmarks will further create a sense of place and will help keep your readers grounded to events taking place, especially if your story has a lot of movement or is fairly large in scale.
8. Man-made geography
I've separated this from geography itself because of the direct human influence involved. While geography provides natural obstacles, man-made structures can demonstrate the creative power and destructiveness of humanity. They are symbols of power, a testimony to the history of a civilization, and can convey the significance of an event or person. These landmarks include dams, bridges, ports, towns and cities, monuments, burial grounds, cemeteries, and famous buildings. Also consider the effects that mankind has on the environment at large. Using the land for fishing and farming, the effects of mining, deforestation, irrigation, vineyards, cattle grazing, plantations, and settlements in general all affect the environment.
9. Historical Significance
Choosing to add historical significance can further ground your setting in reality. It also gives you a lot of rich background details that you can use to enrich the experience of your characters. Think about important historical events, wars, or eras that may tie into your narrative's plot and theme. You can choose anything you like here, but it must make sense. Examples are Pearl Harbor, World War II, Pompeii, The Salem Witch Trials, the gold rush of the 1800s, the Bubonic Plague, The Civil War, and the Victorian Era. All of these have unique challenges, settings, and details that can be used to make your story more potent.
10. Social/political/cultural environment
This is a broader overview of this particular topic. There are so many items that fall into this category, but generally speaking I'm referring to the influencing expectations, traditions, and rules that dictate how people behave and conduct themselves within a society. It can be values, religion, cultural ideas and customs, gender roles, power hierarchy, rituals, societal expectations, the political climate, languages, cuisine, and so much more. These provide insight not only into your character's world, but also into your character's motives as well. All of these have power over your characters’ values, social and family roles, and sensibilities. These influence their decisions and thinking when they do make narrative choices.
Population affects your character's day-to-day experience and alters the landscape they live in. If your setting is a huge metropolitan city, it's going to provide different resources, a different vibe, and different pacing than a small town in the middle of nowhere. Choosing an appropriate amount of people and resources for your setting is crucial because you want it to actively reflect your scenery.
12. Ancestral influences
The last element you should consider is where your setting hails from. If you're writing about a setting in the US, you'll be able to pull from a variety of backgrounds. In Florida, you have a lot of Cuban and Haitian influences, in the bayous of Louisiana you've got a unique mix of cultural practice- Native American, French-Canadian, and African American. Overseas the ancestral differences get even more diverse. We see these ancestral aspects through cuisine, dialogue, values, attitudes, and general outlook.
Elements of Setting Worksheet
Now that we've gone over the 12 elements of setting, it's time to break out our pens and do some brainstorming! Please feel free to copy and paste the template below or save it for your own brainstorming binders:
For more information to help you create your setting, check out the book below.
Writing Vivid Settings by Rayne Hall
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