This is the fourth post in a series of five on the elements of storytelling, in collaboration with the Ice Colony Podcast. Having gone in-depth on character, plot, and dialogue, this month I’ll be focusing on setting.
Setting is the single biggest determinant of the mood and aesthetic of a story, and can be used to great effect to bring a story to life. And there’s more to the backdrop than place––time and culture also play a major role in constructing a setting, which should in a sense frame your story and tie in with both the plot and individual character arcs. As somebody who enjoys writing and reading very visual fiction, I’ve developed a framework for how to set the stage on which a story plays out. Here are my top tips on setting––
Write what you know.
I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again. I don’t write stories set somewhere I haven’t been, and will only set novels in New York or New England, possibly Seattle or Los Angeles as I’ve spent a lot of time in both. I’m probably excessively obsessed with setting and too cautious about inaccuracy––I do think it’s possible to write a great story somewhere you haven’t spent a lot of time in. But it certainly helps the realism and imagery if you have. I grew up in Connecticut and have spent almost a decade in the City. You can bet that any story I write set in these places is full of moments specific to the place, and those moments can really bring a story and its backdrop to life. Just something to think about.
Write before writing.
Use real world settings to develop your fictional one. Whether you’re in a specific place or simply a type of setting, like the beach. Before writing a story, I’ll often sit and just watch the world go by and take notes on what I see. There are countless little moments that are difficult to make up, and art should imitate life. I think the most beautiful thing about writing is being able to conjure emotional, human stories out of nothing. But that’s the thing––I don’t think it’s possible to write a truly amazing, realistic story without being an active observer of the world.
Make a mood board!
Setting is the most visual aspect of a story, and as such can really benefit from planning in detail how the story will look based on a common theme or *energy*. Taking notes on the world around you is helpful as far as crafting rich descriptions, but if you have a specific aesthetic in mind when you begin––especially one that may be difficult to observe in real life––it’s also good to put together an image board. I recommend searching Pinterest for “____ aesthetic”. A ton of relevent images will come up. Fill in the blank with anything, even the most basic idea of a mood (ie. boarding school aesthetic, summer aesthetic, city aesthetic, blue aesthetic…literally, infinite possibilities). Then use those images to start building a setting.
When crafting a setting, take into account themes and characters.
Setting is an all-encompassing part of fiction, that holds everything that happens in a story and everyone it happens to. It’s always in the background, and the place and time in which the story is set will naturally have an effect on the characters. Think about how the setting might have a bearing on the plot, and ask yourself how characters’ behavior is influenced by where they are and how they relate to their surroundings. Theme is also something that should totally be tied into the setting. It’s actually really easy to do this, if your story has a larger underlying message. This is where motifs come in––symbols, essentially, meant to reference / develop the theme(s) of the story. For example, Gatsby’s green light. It’s symbolic of hope and arguably stupid optimism (which I’m so inspired by I got “believe in the green light” tattooed on my thigh). Setting based, but with a deeper meaning. These things make the story feel altogether richer, and give the plot and setting purpose.
If you’re writing a story, especially a longer piece like a novel, set in the past, become an expert on your chosen era––and exercise caution writing stories set before 1900.
One of the easiest ways to alienate your reader is to write a story that feels contrived or unrealistic. Accuracy is key, it’s easy to compromise realism when writing a story set in the past. There are so many things we don’t even think of that didn’t exist or existed differently in previous times. That said, it’s totally possible to write an awesome historical story, just go extra heavy on the research, and try to choose a time and place on which there’s a wealth of knowledge available. I would also caution against writing before 1900 unless you want to do a whole lot more research (which you may), because the way people spoke was so different. This is especially true of stories set before 1700. Old English is basically another language. You may decide to write a story set in the distant past but write it in a more modern way, which is fine as long as you go all-in and it’s self-aware. No random “thous” or lofty but inaccurate attempts at formal old-timey speech. For more tips on writing historical fiction, check out this post.
Note books and movies that have a setting or feel similar to what you want for your story.
It’s not copying if you make it your own, and inspiration is never a bad thing. Always be on the lookout for authors who share your *vibe*, and visual media like movies and TV. I’m obsessed with the show Euphoria and love its strong aesthetic, and have chosen certain elements of the style, if not direct imagery, to incorporate into my next story. This goes along with the note taking and mood boards––underlying principle, setting benefits from always being aware and observant, constantly looking for inspiration.
Keep descriptions visual and sense-based.
While there are so many types of writing important to a well-rounded story, when fleshing out the setting I think the most powerful way of evoking the feel of a certain place is naturally detailed, sensory description that gives the reader of sense of what it feels like to exist in a certain place and time. Because that’s what good fiction does––enables the reader to put themselves in the characters’ shoes. That includes a visceral picture of what the world looks like to the characters.
Emotions are a big part of setting too.
I might even say you can build a setting from a feeling. A great example of this is the book and movie Call Me By Your Name, one of my all-time favorites. I feel like the setting honestly makes the story––summer in 1980s Italy is written like a painting, and an incredibly realistic one at that. But the setting is inextricable from the overwhelming emotion of the book, which is a deep, painful nostalgia. That’s the aesthetic, and if you approach world building with a focus on how it makes you (and the reader) feel, a feeling can fuel a story.
Even if you can’t actually go to a place, there are ways to visualize your setting virtually…
While I do believe in writing what you know, I realize that most people only have extensive experience in a few places, and that that’s limiting. If you’re writing outside your sphere of knowledge or are having trouble picturing a place, there are plenty of resources to help you out. I recommend Google and Apple maps street view. If you put in an address, you’ll get a real life picture, and can essentially walk the streets using this feature. Travel sites and even hotel websites can also give good insight into a place, and how it feels. Hotel websites are often very aesthetic as a matter of appealing to customers, and while this may present a rosy view of any part of the world, if that’s what you’re looking for it can be good. Lastly, I almost always go on real estate sites to pick homes for my characters, whether it’s a luxury townhouse in New York or a little ranch in Ohio. Essentially, look online for ways to really virtually experience a place rather than just reading about it and trying to imagine.
Takeaways––the more visual, the better; put a lot of effort into your setting, and be sure it isn’t an afterthought. If inspiration is what you’re lacking, wait on it. Next month, I’ll get into how to handle writer’s block and where to get ideas when you’re running dry.