Tuesday, January 1, 2019


Part 1 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings 
◆ Catherine E. McLean - © 2019 All Rights Reserved

Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else . . . Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?                                — Eudora Welty

A story's setting is more than world-building. 

A story's setting is a key aspect of fiction, along with plot, character, theme, and style. However, a story's setting provides the backdrop, the "theater stage" of an environment, the time (or era) that creates or reinforces the story's circumstances, mood, tone, and believability.  

A story's setting can run the gauntlet from the wide view of a sci-fi or fantasy universe to historical and contemporary eras— and on down to scenes where there are actual props for the Protagonist and Antagonist, or other characters, to handle or use.

Often the first thing a novice writer is told to do when opening a story is to anchor a reader in a specific place and a specific time (era, year, time of day or night, season, etc.).

Obviously, the anchor should be done as quickly as possible, ideally on page one, like within the first 250 words. However, that anchor is not to be a dump of information or lengthy description (nothing exceeding 60 words in any one spot) or it will turn off the reader. The best anchors are succinct details rich with imagery that are woven into the action or narrative.

Let's backtrack a moment and take a look at the various definitions of the word "setting"— 

the context and environment in which something is set
the state of the environment in which a situation exists
the arrangement of scenery and properties (props) that represent the place where a play, movie, or story is enacted
the set of facts or circumstances that surround a situation or event
the physical position of something

In other words, setting is a broad topic. So broad that for 2019 all the monthly topics for this Writer's Cheat Sheet Blog will deal with an aspect of a story's world or what is entailed for a "theater stage" on which a scene plays out. 

Regarding "world-building" — The very word suggests creating a fictional world. When writing science fiction or fantasy, care must be taken to create believable environments so the reader suspends their disbelief. That means striving to make the reader curious or to wow a jaded reader with something new, different, fresh, or fantastic.

Historical writers need to know their era. Which means research and triple checking dates for inventions and discoveries as well as conflicts, wars, politics, holidays, and religious events. Always at the back of the historical writer's mind is the knowledge that their audience knows the era well and those readers do not tolerate authors' mistakes.

Contemporary storytellers often think that because the story's time period is present day, or takes place in the writer's life-time, they don't have to create a setting—which can be true. However, the drawback to such thinking is getting the facts or a date wrong. Like the historical reader, a contemporary reader will pick up on errors and the writer's credibility nosedives. 

Regardless of genre, having a written record (of research, quotes, excerpts from biographies, etc.) helps immensely in the drafting and the revision-editing stages. Consider, too, that having visual records (photographs, drawings, sketches, etc.) makes it far easier to accurately describe something so the reader can visualize the same image. All in all, having such records-files ensures accuracy and, more importantly, believability and credibility.

You can create such records by setting up and using a file that organizes the various aspects of a story's world. That file can be done with a computer file or with some type of notebook, ring-binder, etc. Subdividing the file with indexes or having specific headers, sections, or separate files enables a writer to quickly locate, add, or update information. Such subdivisions are especially useful when writing a sequel or a new story that takes place in the original world's setting.

A writer can go online and google free images of setting forms or find blog posts of what others use for their story world building or setting pages. As I've said many times, don't take a form verbatim. Instead take the ideas presented, the information or questions that you most need, and make your own "cheat sheets" for the way you tell a story. 

Of course it sounds grand to be a God of Creation for a fictional universe that is a story. The trouble is, a writer can get carried away with the creation of said world and spend countless hours generating details that never play into the story (and the story never gets written). 

Lastly, remember, a story's setting or a scene's setting must help develop the story's drama, urgency, and keep the plot moving along. After all, a story is about one interesting character (who is the protagonist) facing or about to face an interesting problem (dilemma, trouble, or danger) in an interesting setting. 

********February's Topic— Setting Tropes.********

Mark your Calendars for this month-long short story course. (Permission to forward is granted---tell your fellow writers!)

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