Building Setting: Ways to Introduce Place in Your Story



Okay, you've got your pen ready, your notebook out, you're feeling energized with all the ideas bubbling inside your head. You've been following along with this series and have a good understanding of what setting is, how to analyze it, what elements you can use, and the two types. You can't wait to get started with the actual writing. But how on earth do you even begin to start writing your setting? How do you accurately depict the image within your mind and use it to its best advantage? In today's post we're going to find out.


Think about what the purpose of having a setting is. It's to introduce the other elements of your story, establish the scene in which events take place, and to establish who your protagonist is. It's time to start painting the picture of the place where your character starts off their story. It could be at their home, in a public place like a coffee shop, or on top of a mountain. Wherever they may be, it's important to give readers a sense of where and when your story is meant to take place. The clearer this image is, the more immersive your reader's experience will be. You can do this by using these 6 easy steps:


1. Give a sense of scale


In Hemingway's short story Hills Like White Elephants, he uses his first paragraph to establish not only the setting in which the story takes place, but the scale within which it occurs.



Here in this excerpt we see that the story takes places in the tiny bar of a railroad station in between Barcelona and Madrid. Hemingway uses visual "lines" to give us a sense of isolation. He says that "the hills across the valley of the Ebro' were long and white". This draws the mental eye outward evoking feelings of great distance. Then he goes on to say, "the station was between two lines of rails", which again gives us a sense of length, but also tells us that the station is at a crossroad. These are significant details within the first two sentences of the story. They demonstrate the emotional distance between The American and the girl and also depict the crossroad for which they are at circumstantially. It is this sense of duality in scale- of being both far away and compact- that helps make this setting so profound. It tells us everything we need to know about the conversation about to take place between the two characters before they are even introduced.


2. Emphasize the unusual


V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic is an excellent example of bringing the unusual to the limelight. She uses her opening to pull us into her strange world of Antari magic and menacing perils.



She uses several cues to distinguish how our world differs from Kell's. She starts by telling us that Kell's coat is "peculiar". She says that it has "several" sides, of which is "impossible". This demonstrates that not only is Kell not normal, but that his coat has some bearing on his magical qualities. She continues with, "he stepped out of one London and into another". Right there she tells us point blank that there is more than one version of London. Uhm, what? An abnormal human, a magical coat, and possible dimension traveling? How cool is that! And the best part is that we got all of that information just from the first few paragraphs.


3. Open with emotion


Patrick Rothfuss uses raw emotion to open his book The Name of The Wind. By presenting the mood, he expertly manipulates how we as readers feel about his story before he even begins telling it.



He does this by telling us that it is "night again", which means that this is a repeated situation during a time in which a tavern should be busy. Instead it is laden with heavy silence. This "silence of three parts" is so deep and oppressive that it shrouds the inn entirely, filling it with a presence that is both complete and final. He paints this dark and somber setting to add to our intrigue. This darkened mood let's us know that this story has mystery and underlying tones of a serious conflict- and now we want to keep reading to find out why.


4. Use descriptive details


In The Road, Cormac McCarthy uses detailed descriptions to immerse us within his post apocalyptic world.



McCarthy uses a lot of details in his opening paragraph. He uses sensory clues like the "nights are dark beyond darkness" and the "days more grey". He says it is "some cold glaucoma dimming away the world". Using the world glaucoma is brilliant, because he is comparing it to a condition that leads to blindness. Not only is the world fading into nothing, but so is the hope that the father and son have left. There are sensory clues such as "cold", "plastic tarpaulin", "stinking robes and blankets", "wet flowstone". Better still he demonstrates the man's love for his son through his actions. His child is "sleeping next to him", "his hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath", "child led him by the hand". We get a clear image of their relationship in this dying world all within the first few moments of the man waking up.


5. Give time indicators


Another way to set up your setting is by using time and period indicators. This becomes especially important if you're writing historical fiction like Michelle Moran's story Nefertiti.



Because Moran's narrative takes place in ancient Egypt, it's imperative that her readers understand the time period and place in which her story occurs from the beginning. She wastes no time in transporting us back in time. She lets us know that we are in Thebes at sun-down within the first line. Then she allows the scenery to speak for itself. By using historical details (viziers, priests of Amun, sarcophagus, team of oxen) and sensory indicators ("sand cooled rapidly in the shadows", "grains between the toes", "wind blew under my thin linen robe") we are easily swept up in this world of ancient traditions and political intrigue.


6. Let your character do the talking


Sometimes the best way to introduce your readers to your world is by letting your characters do the work for you. Libba Bray knows this, as she uses the technique in her book A Great And Terrible Beauty.



She opens with dialogue right away. We find out key pieces of information from the exchange between her and her mother. We learn that it is her sixteenth birthday, that she's somewhere in India, and that cobra is apparently an option for dinner. This is a very direct way to set up your setting, but the benefits are that you learn a lot about the protagonist right away. Like how Gemma doesn't like snakes and has no desire to eat them, for example. We also see that she's not afraid of expressing her opinions and that her mother in comparison is much more refined (white gloves) and open-minded (stroking the snake) than her teenage daughter, suggesting that Gemma may not be in India because she wants to be.


Now matter which of the 6 opening options you choose from, all of them make for some eye-catching ways to exhibit your setting. While you may be drawn to a certain style right away, this isn't always the case. If you're undecided, try them all out and see what works best for your story. When you've found the right fit, you'll know.


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