Set the Stage: How to Write a Setting
You have an incredible story in your head, filled with a cast of unique, memorable characters. Heck, you’ve even built up some cool history, maybe even your own language. Now, as you prepare to bring this great book to life and write your first scene, you find that you’re puppeting these awesome characters against a blank background. Or maybe a boring background… but is there a difference?
My friend, you need to write a setting worthy of your story.
Writing a setting isn’t as easy as it sounds, though, and great settings are criminally underrated. But that’s why we’re here, right? To write better settings for our characters.
In this article, you’re going to learn all about writing great settings, including:
- What the heck a setting is
- Why settings are important
- How to describe a setting for your readers
- How to create a fictional setting
- How to research real-world settings
Ready. Setting. Go.
Goodness, that was bad.
What is a Setting?
Before we can go any further, let’s establish the basics. What is a setting?
Most people think a setting is simply where a part of your story takes place. This is only partially correct, but it gives us a good start. More accurately, setting is where the action in your story takes place.
But the where is a lot more complex than you might think. It isn’t just the geography of the scene.
The setting of a scene includes:
- Climate and weather
- Politics and religion
- Time of day
- Time in history or the future
- Societal norms, rules, and laws
- Speech, languages, and communication styles
- Flora and fauna
- Magic and technology
Honestly, the list could go on. What I want to impress upon you is how much goes into a setting.
Think of it this way: your current scene’s setting is just a piece of your overall worldbuilding. And the world you’ve built—whether you are writing about gnomes in an epic fantasy or a love-scorned CEO in a real-world city—is much more than just geography.
Why is Setting Important?
If you’re already feeling excited about writing better settings, I don’t blame you. But maybe you’re wondering why settings are important in the first place.
Settings aren’t just important for fantasy and sci-fi stories. It doesn’t matter if your scene is taking place in the Shire or Manhattan; setting is important for all stories. Don’t worry, I’ll let you in on the secrets.
Setting helps bring your story to life - As authors, we rely a lot on our reader’s imagination to make our text real. So do them a favor by creating detailed settings that make your story that much better.
Setting puts the scene in context - Someone reciting religious scripture will be viewed differently in a church than outside a tyrannical queen’s palace. Likewise, someone wielding a weapon will be treated differently on a battlefield than in a mall. An effective setting helps put the actions of your characters into context.
Immersed readers are emotional readers - The more you plunge your readers into the depths of your story, the more of a reaction you will elicit. A good setting adds depth to your writing and immerses your reader… so you can mess with them even more.
Setting can provide opportunities for character development - Throughout your book, there will be plenty of things that push your characters forward, forcing them to adapt and change. This includes other characters, conflicts, and—you guessed it—the setting. As you’ll find out in the next section, a good setting is a powerful tool for your plot and characters.
What Makes a Good Setting?
I’m going to get a little abstract with this question (don’t worry, tips for writing a setting are coming right up), because “what makes a good setting?” isn’t as clear as you might think.
If you were to instead ask “what makes an okay setting?” then I would tell you that it’s whatever background you make that adds some depth.
But we don’t want an “okay” setting. Heck, we don’t even want a good setting. No, we want an amazing setting. And for that, you only need two things:
1. An amazing setting serves the plot. Why is your scene set where it is? How does it affect the action occuring there? What impact does it have on things that happen once this scene is finished? What does it show the readers about your world and your story?
2. An amazing setting influences your character. This influence can be positive or negative. How are your characters affected by the setting? Does it fill them with confidence or dread? What does it remind them of? How can they use it to get what they want–or how can it be used against them?
See? Abstract. But you need to keep these things in mind when crafting your setting. Unless you’re okay with boring. But, since you’re here, I assume that’s not the case.
Now, let’s get into those tips I promised you.
8 Tips to Describe Your Setting
Let’s get down to business. Time for some real, actionable tips to use in your writing.
1. Show, don’t tell. This is advice for your writing in general but is extra important for writing a setting. Use active writing. Add some dynamism into your prose. Rather than “She saw a waterfall,” use “Untold gallons of water plummeted from forty feet above her, slamming into the rocks below.” Instead of “He could smell the sea from here,” try “The waves crashed against the docks, filling the air with a fresh, salty mist.”
2. Don’t be so literal. Be creative in how you share the setting with your reader. They aren’t stalagmites, they’re the stony fangs looming above. It’s not just tense in the city, but a blanket of animosity smothers the few residents out on the streets. Just don’t go overboard. There’s nothing worse than a book so dense with description that you have to wade through it.
3. Convey a mood. Remember, your setting does more than just provide a backdrop to your stage. Use the setting to establish a mood for both your reader and your characters in the scene.
4. Share the basics. While setting is more than just location and geography, it’s still location and geography. Don’t get so caught up in the theatrics that you forget to let your reader know where they are.
5. Then share the rest. But once that location or geography is shared, start giving them more details. Build the scene bit by bit until it’s unforgettable.
6. Don’t info dump. Again, a good rule of thumb for all writing but a biggie here. Since I’ve told you of all these great things you should include in your setting, it’s tempting to write three pages describing what the place looks like, the geopolitical climate, the storm encroaching from the south, and every other detail you can think of. Drip feed this information throughout the scene instead–especially everything considered “the rest” in the previous tip.
7. Use more than just sight. Maybe I’m biased from binging See on Apple TV+, but many writers are too reliant on sight for their descriptions. Sure, sight is the dominant way in which most of us take in the world, but you have the ability to use all five senses. So choose a couple and use those to set the scene.
8. Don’t forget about your characters. Remember, the setting isn’t just a setting. It has purpose. Keep this in mind when you’re creating the setting for each scene.
How to Create a Fictional Setting
Now that you have all those pointers, how do you go about creating a fictional setting?
Like I said before, each setting your characters find themselves in is just a sliver of the bigger world you’ve built. So step one of creating a fictional setting is to create your fictional world.
You can spend hours, days, even months creating a fictional world to pull your settings from, depending on how complex you want that world to be.
When it comes to picking apart that world and making your setting, refer to the tips we just covered. Add details that need to be added as you go from a macro view of your world to the micro view of your scene.
And as you’re planning that scene, try and limit yourself a little. You dumped all the creativity you have into worldbuilding, but not every detail needs to be included in a setting. Remember that the setting serves the plot and characters. So don’t spend too much time creating details in your setting that are irrelevant to either of those.
For the visually inclined, go ahead and draw a map or sketch of your setting. It can really help get the mood and finer points right. As you’re drawing, think about how senses other than sight can be used.
And if you’re a pantser, at least take a moment to consider the setting you’re going to write. Yes, you can do all the exploratory writing you want, but remember what we covered before: amazing settings are written with purpose.
So figure out the purpose of your setting before that first word.
How to Research a Real World Setting
If writing in the real world is more your style, then research will be your best friend. If your setting is a place that other human beings can visit or live in, your readers will shred you if you mess things up.
Luckily, there are a few ways to help you research real world settings.
Visit the location if possible - This is obviously easier if the prospective setting is only an hour or two away via a car or public transit, but visiting the location is the best way to take in the details. Remember all your senses, how it makes you feel, what questions the location makes you ask, how the people act. Take photos. Record videos. Use a voice note app and rant about everything.
Visit the location virtually - There is no shortage of information available for basically any place visited by human beings. Wikipedia, Google Maps, travel blogs, YouTube channels, tourism websites, and so much more. Remember to look for details beyond sight. This is less reliable than physically visiting the location but far from impossible.
Take notes - At the risk of sounding like a broken record, note down everything about the scene. This could include:
- What do you see? Hear? Smell? Taste? Feel?
- What are the vibes of the setting?
- How would the setting change if it was night instead of day?
- What can this setting contribute to my plot?
- How can this setting affect my characters?
- What are the people like?
- What history went into creating this place?
- What future developments are going to change it?
Write a Great Setting in Dabble
I bet you didn’t think writing a strong setting took so much work, did you? You don’t have to follow all the steps and tips in this blog if you just want an okay setting, and there’s nothing wrong with some settings being just that.
But awesome settings require work. Luckily, Dabble is here to make that work–and your writing–easier.
In Dabble, you have a whole folder dedicated to your worldbuilding notes that is always just a click away from your manuscript. You can even link within your notes by typing @ and choosing the setting outline you want to link to, so you can reference all the work you’ve put into crafting your setting without opening new documents, searching through your computer, or wasting paper to print it.
The best part? You can get started with Dabble right away with a free 14-day subscription. We don’t even ask for your credit card. Click here to try Dabble and create some memorable settings.
TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING...
Read. Learn. Create.
While the terms "story" and "plot" are often used interchangeably, they are actually two distinct elements of narrative, and understanding the difference can be a useful tool in your storytelling arsenal. You’re going to need some of both to create a compelling book that’ll have your readers coming back for more.
Editing. That tricky little step between drafting and publishing. Okay, maybe it’s not so little. Actually, it’s kind of important. I’ll even go out on a limb and say it’s actually the most important part. And the limb is very short. But where do you start? You’ve got all these words and now you have to take your messy first draft and make them actually readable. You know editing’s a thing, but you’ve probably heard there is more than one kind of editing. One of the most comprehensive is known as content or development editing. This is often the first kind of editing any book sees and, for new writers, can be a valuable step in honing their craft.
We tend to give a lot of thought to our characters when we’re writing. Their likes and dislikes. Their appearance and disposition. Hopefully their wants, goals, motivations, flaws and all the things that make them feel like real people. But how much thought do you give to actually introducing them to your readers? A strong introduction to a character can help make or break that character and the way your reader perceives them. So what’s in an introduction, anyway?