How to improve your story’s setting – Part 1

Setting is one of the more important elements of fiction (and even nonfiction) writing. In this two-part series, we tell you how to choose your setting and how to make the best of it.

Part 2 – Next week Wednesday

WAWFMM3 (Setting & Description)This article is an excerpt from the “WAW Fiction MicroMasterclass: Setting & Description”, a collation of learning notes from the WAW Fiction Masterclass series. #WAWFM are one-day fun fiction masterclasses focusing on elements of fiction. It features learning sessions, reading excerpts, videos, writing, workshopping and review of pieces. There’s also music, food, and a sense of community and networking with great writerly folk.

The next #WAWFM, Plot, Description and Setting, is scheduled for 25th March, 2017 in Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria. Registrations are ongoing, and seats are limited to 25 only. Register now.

What Is Setting?

Setting refers to a time and place, the where and when of a story. That’s it, really. That’s what setting is in its purest, basic form. Like this:

The high noon sun beat against the window of my office’s break-out room, painting the couches orange and my skin bronze.


A very long time ago, in a village in East Nigeria called Orlu…

We’ve said it at WAW, time and again, that stories are always about people. Those people, have to be located somewhere: a time, and a place. Characters must be grounded in a setting, if readers must experience the story along with them. Most stories will involve more than one setting, and it is the writer’s job to assist the reader in navigating these settings.

In some stories, setting will play a major role, while in others, it will mostly act as background. In Dean Koontz’s novel Midnight, humans have gone animalistic for some reason. A lot of the conflict is set in night scenes (obviously) because this heightens the tension and conflict in a way that setting these scenes in daylight wouldn’t. The setting therefore contributes to the story. In some other stories however, setting usually takes a backdrop upon which the characters play out their story.

Let’s look at what setting encompasses.

Setting: What it Encompasses

Before we go forward, take a look at THIS VIDEO by Dan Sato, a public high school teacher in Seattle, USA, which tells us everything we need to know about setting in six-and-a-half minutes.

Alright, now that you’ve seen that, here’s a brief roundup of what setting encompasses:

Place: Geography (including climate, etc)

Place includes everything from the planet to a continent, country, state, city, county, neigbhourhood, house, and even room. This includes the:

  • Locale: Country, state, region, city, town, etc.
  • Geography, Topography and climate

Consider this passage, for example, from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist:

“Oliver, being left to himself in the undertaker’s shop, set the lamp down on a workman’s bench, and gazed timidly about him with a feeling of awe and dread, which many people a good deal older than he will be at no loss to understand. An unfinished coffin on black tressels, which stood in the middle of the shop, looked so gloomy and death-like that a cold tremble came over him, every time his eyes wandered in the direction of the dismal object: from which he almost expected to see some frightful form slowly rear its head, to drive him mad with terror. Against the wall were ranged, in regular array, a long row of elm boards cut in the same shape: looking in the dim light, like high-shouldered ghosts with their hands in their breeches pockets. Coffin-plates, elm-chips, bright-headed nails, and shreds of black cloth, lay scattered on the floor; and the wall behind the counter was ornamented with a lively representation of two mutes in very stiff neckcloths, on duty at a large private door, with a hearse drawn by four black steeds, approaching in the distance. The shop was close and hot. The atmosphere seemed tainted with the smell of coffins. The recess beneath the counter in which his flock mattress was thrust, looked like a grave.”

Or the opening lines of Around The World In Eighty Days by Jules Verne:

“Mr. Phileas Fogg lived, in 1872, at No. 7, Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1814.”


  • Time of day, month, year, seasons (physical–e.g. Summer–and social–e.g. Easter)
  • Era (Social/political/cultural environment)

Again, see this example from Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup that tells of the protagonist’s socio-political environment.

“Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State-and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years—it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.”

And this excerpt from Ben Aaronovtich’s Whispers Underground which tells of not only the season, but also the specific sights and sounds of a particular time of day of a locale in London:

“New Covent Garden at five o’clock on a winter’s morning is a concrete arena full of headlights, smoke and shouting. Trucks, vans and forklifts snort and growl in an out of loading bays while men in reflective coats and woollen hats clutch clipboards and dial their mobiles with clumsy gloved fingers.”

Writer’s Digest has a breakdown of all these elements of setting in a great article here.

A quick note on Mood: Setting plays a big role in establishing Mood. A dark, deserty planet without sun already sets the tone for a gloomy, gritty story. I would be very surprised to find rainbows and unicorns in that story, or anything that is the colour pink. This will be the exact opposite expectation I will have of a story set in an island filled with beaches, breeze and bright colours.

Read the concluding part of this two-part piece in Part 2 – next week Wednesday.

To learn more about Plot, Setting and Description, register for the upcoming fiction masterclass. Only a few seats left.

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