Set the scene! Just how important is setting? And what are the best techniques for writing setting? All this and more is explored below. 

1. In the Particular Lies the Universal

Have you heard this phrase before? It refers to the slightly odd way in which the more specific a story is, the more people can see themselves in it. This is probably due to the fact that human beings have a lot more in common than they think, regardless of location and culture. If you boil it right down, people are often born into the family unit, go to school, get jobs, get married, and have children, grow old, and die. 

So how is this relevant for setting? James Joyce’s story collection Dubliners is about people in Dublin at a very specific time in history, but it’s so detailed, and the verisimilitude is so high, that it is arguably possible for people from all walks of life to see aspects of their own experience reflected in those pages.

This point leads into quite a complex debate about ‘universal’ subject positions … i.e. some experiences are seen as representative of the ‘human experience’ whereas others are seen as fringe or niche experiences. So we have to be aware of the subtle power dynamics at work in saying that anyone’s experiences are truly universal.

However, the takeaway point here, when creating the setting of your work, is that you shouldn’t be afraid of making it too detailed, and too true to life. In fact, the more real you make the suburban home, or capture the details of the suburban park, or the Australian outback, or the Tibetan mountain range, the more people will identify with that place and time, and the more they will be able to see their own experiences reflected in your world! 

2. The Natural World and Pathetic Fallacy

The natural world has always played an important role in fictional universes, from Homer to Harry Potter. No matter how much we consider ourselves indoorsy people, considerations of the natural world will always find their way into our day to day life. Whether it’s remembering to bring an umbrella, having to turn on the heater, going for a walk at the beach or in the car, or going to work. 

Remember our true natural state is to exist in nature – and the whole concept of ‘indoors’ is a relatively new thing! 

So what role can natural settings play in your creative writing? Have you heard the phrase ‘pathetic fallacy’? Pathetic in this sense refers to emotion, and fallacy means a lie: its a literary technique that involves attributing human emotions to inanimate objects, like rocks, or the sea! 

Authors have always used this technique – referring to the angry sea for instance. In this way the natural world can be used to reflect (and enhance) the emotional states of your protagonists: think of the storm in King Lear when Lear is wandering in the wilderness! The storm reflects his inner turmoil, and heightens Lear’s dire state of affairs. 

3. Begin with Setting – and build from there.

Some authors like Tim Winton say that they begin each story with place, and setting. That they investigate a certain landscape, and listen to the characters that bubble up from the swamps, and who almost magically populate this semi imaginary realm. 

If you start with a very clear idea of place, this will give you a playground to have your characters run around in, and the landscape may do much of the heavy lifting involved in story telling for you! 

You may find the characters objectives are altered or even formed by the landscape. Do they need to seek water? Or shelter? Does the landscape determine what jobs are available for the community? etc. 

Consider starting with a detailed setting and see what arises! 

4. How to Write Setting in Creative Writing

Many authors begin a passage by setting the scene. How is this done?

Often a chapter of a novel will consist of several passages of ‘action’, or events that are related in ‘real time’, i.e. moving forward through time, as though a reporter is reporting on events as they occurred (even though it’s happening the past). 

If you look at your favourite stories, you may see that passages of action are first introduced with what can been seen in the world the action will take place in. For example, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, we may be told who is in the cave in the Spanish mountains, and the tasks they are completing. Well get a detailed description of the interior of the cave, and once we feel comfortable in the world, once the scene has been set, then the author will launch into relating the main events of the passage being described. 

So consider starting each passage by setting the scene! 

5. How to use Setting to Address Theme  

Setting and theme often overlap. If you want to address issues particularly relevant to small town life, or to rural communities, you will probably want to investigate what life in these communities is really like! If you don’t have any experience yourself, make sure to visit areas like the ones you are writing about. Get a sense of all the fauna and flora in the area, and the different lifestyles on offer.

If you are addressing themes such as injustice, considering the harshness of certain environments may really strengthen the breadth and depth of your thematic investigation. For instance, if you are writing about life in prison, especially for someone who has been falsely accused and has suffered a miscarriage of justice, then exploring in detail how awful the experience of prison can be is vital to your theme.

Make sure to consider the ways in which setting can be used to strengthen your thematic exploration!

7. Setting as Character

Have you ever heard someone say that a particular setting is almost like a character in a film? What does this mean exactly? 

Certain settings can be so powerful, and characterful, that they almost appear to have a personality or a will of their own. Think of an arctic expedition. How would you describe this setting? You would likely use some human characteristics. You might say it is unforgiving, harsh, impartial, inscrutable, mercurial, treacherous. In reality, it is none of these things. It’s just rocks and some frozen water.

The point here is that landscape and setting can be evoked so powerfully that the spirit of a place can be captured to the extent that the landscape is almost entirely personified. 

It’s worth thinking about your setting as a character. If the landscape in your story was a person – how would you describe them?

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has given you an entry point into writing setting and considering its importance in your story. Think of setting as another tool in your arsenal as you create compelling and thematically rich explorations of the human condition!


Oliver Adams

Letter Review was founded by Oliver Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Oliver Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. He has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.