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In both fiction and nonfiction, the setting is the general background against which your story takes place—the physical location and time period, both of which influence your characters and plot. So how can a creative writer use setting and scenery to further offset, augment, or reflect the action of the plot?
Although we’re going to be exploring this issue in terms of fiction, these techniques work for nonfiction as well. These craft techniques work in all genres: poetry, stories, personal essays, memoir, and books.
Suppose you’re writing a novel that is set in the Deep South in 1955 and your protagonist is an immigrant facing prejudice and roadblocks at every turn. You’d have a completely different novel if your protagonist were a Texas cowboy who found himself in Mississippi at that particular time and place.
Setting the stage for a short story or novel is a crucial part of engaging your reader. At Writer’s Relief, we receive hundreds of submissions to our Review Board each cycle, and we’ve found that those authors who use setting as a literary technique bring their short stories and books to life more vividly. Here are some examples:
1. Use the setting to contrast or emphasize the action, like a murder victim found in a children’s petting zoo or a suicidal character in a peaceful, beautiful beach scene. Consider setting a romantic scene—a first kiss, for example—in an unromantic setting like a junkyard, post office, or emergency room.
2. A pivotal moment can occur in an everyday setting: A woman learns of her husband’s plan to divorce her while making coffee in her quiet, orderly kitchen. Or a mundane thing can happen in the middle of a crisis: During the emergency delivery of a baby in an elevator, a character gets a phone call from his mom.
3. The weather can also create contrast in plot. Have your character receive great news right in the middle of an ominous thunderstorm. Or kill off a character in the first sweet days of spring, normally a time of rebirth.
4. Use your setting as a metaphor: A man suddenly decides to quit his mind-numbingly boring job. He emerges from his claustrophobic cubicle and strolls out under the wide expanse of a clear, blue sky.
5. You can also use the setting to augment the mood. An old man with evil intentions plots his revenge against a backdrop of dark clouds or from within an ancient house. Or a woman, caught up in a crazy, chaotic crowd scene, is struck by a terrible revelation that will turn her world upside down.
6. Use the background to emphasize the character’s emotions rather than describing them, and impact your reader more fully. If your character is full of angst, you can either contrast his emotions against a calm, peaceful setting or augment his emotional state by placing him in a setting full of turmoil and confusion.
These are just a few of the ways an author can use the setting of a story to enhance the characters, plot, and theme of a short story or novel. NOTE: Not only is setting important for enriching your writing, but some literary journals, such as Ecotone: Reimagining Place and The Fourth River, specifically look for writing about location, place, etc.—where the scene is as just important as your main character. For more tips on fiction writing—plus in-depth information on submitting your work for publication—subscribe to Writer’s Relief’s e-publication, Submit Write Now! We’ve been helping writers connect with literary agents and editors since 1994.
QUESTION: What was the setting of the last thing you wrote?