Setting: The Foundation

Previously from the category On Writing

In the Distance, she finally saw what the witch in Cobble had spoken of. A network of churned streets, mixtures of asphalt and building crumbs, stretched for miles. The buildings were nothing more neglected tombs of anyone taking a wrong step within them. The drains, unattended for decades, had been blocked, leaving the basin of the city to fill with boggy water that connected into the marsh every rainy season, laden with the smell of creatures lurking in the depths of the downtown building’s lower levels.  The markets running along the outskirts of the marsh were marked by a single fire drum, each brothel or bar marked with two. Though reluctant of such stagnant air, she drew in deep and made her way down the slopes to The City of Scum.

I hope I still have your attention. I do? Good.

When talking about the setting of a story, there’s always more detail you can give. You could describe every square inch of this city, brick by brick, but to what avail?

This week we’ll talk a little bit about setting. How do you utilize such a foundation for your story, beckoning your reader’s attention, and how does that create some well-deserved conflict for your characters as well?

Setting the Scene

                It’s nothing new to know that your setting within a story is crucial, but where are the meat and potatoes? The question to ask is where you’d want to find them. This is the environment we’re talking about.

Think of the emotion you want to transcribe to your audience. If you’re new to writing, you can try something like happy, sad, dangerous, or scary. If your seasoned and believe you can conjure a scene that depicts a specific emotion then do it!

As long as you truthfully express what you see in your imagination, bearing in mind your readers don’t want sensory overload, you’ll be fine. Just remember that your environment(s) breathe as much as your characters do, and some will interact with them more than some of your other characters will.

Exercise your environmental development skills like you would a character. Make them good or evil, or even a true neutral if you’d like. Make it come alive in your reader’s mind.

Practice this kind of exercise often, even if it’s just describing a place like in the first paragraph. Practice does the imagination good, and it never hurts to get inspired by your own surroundings as well.

Three Elements to Keep in Mind

                Three of the basic elements of a setting (the place, time, and environment in which the story takes place) are a good foundation to build upon when starting off. There are many other specific categories to keep in mind when it comes to the setting, but these would be considered the ‘parent’ categories.


The place, that building, this city or some other varying degree to portion out how big your setting is something that needs to be taken head on.

Within the example provided, you can draw the conclusion that it’s an abandoned city (so fairly large), it’s dark and murky, and the touch of bars and brothels tells that your dear old gran probably won’t be there sipping tea.


As far as time goes, think of how time will have affected the setting. Is it weathered and worn, crumbled into rubble, or has time brought peace to an otherwise sovereign land?

Think of what time within this specific scene as well. Is it late or early? The way I imagined it in my head was just after dusk, maybe there’s still some pink off in the distance from the sun. I try to deliver this with the usage of the flaming barrels, but if you imagine something a bit different, it’ll be okay. This is what re-writing is for.

Another example of time along the lines of a date, without necessarily explaining it directly, is giving the hint based off surroundings. From the paragraph you could reasonably conclude that it’s set within a dystopian or post war era to say the least. Either way, time is of the essence. Moving on.


Nobody likes being left in the dark when reading a good story. When taking environment into consideration, you need to understand precisely what you see and give your readers an understandable, yet brief, overview of the situation.

Environment can come in big strides, small steps, or even piece by piece, as the story progresses of course, if you want to build a bit of tension. Just remember, the finer details are only important if it pertains to the story. Unless that single crack in the mortar across the room is withholding secrets, don’t describe it. Nobody gives a shit.

A Few Other Specifics to Keep In Mind

 – Regions within your own world or the geography of this one.

– Buildings & Room designs/ Exterior & Interior layouts

– Evidence of weathering (through the passage of time or weather itself)

– Outer and Inner, (i.e. description of layered settings such as a city)

–  Lighting, color, shadows, objects, and clarity (i.e. the contents and how they complement or contrast the mood & plot)

– Seasonal Variations & Climate (There’s four variables here (Winter, Spring, Summer, & Fall), but you can make up twenty in your story if you’re good enough.)

– Day & Night (Description of the hour, or the four daily sections: morning, noon, evening, & night)

– *Sensory Description* (Touch, Taste, Sight, Scent, & Sound) these are key young grasshopper

                 Setting can be challenge if you’re not used to describing something. If this happens to be your shortcoming, practice practice practice. Writing, in my opinion, is something that’s a slow progression, kind of like  weight training.

So, don’t use sloppy comparisons unless it’s for satire, be comfortable with how your description flows, and always make sure that your reader can use their own imagination as you guide them through your world. You’re the guide on this journey, take responsibility for that role and be a damn good one.

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