To state the obvious: everything happens somewhere, sometime. If you don’t make sure that your reader can imagine the where and the when of your story, that poor reader won’t stay with you, no matter how scintillating your plot is. It seems easy to say, “So just provide the details of the place and time,” but it’s a little more complicated than that. Here are a few tips:
When and where are you?
Really, the question is, “When and where are your characters? And what does that have to do with the story you want to tell?”
- The overarching trick to establishing the place(s) where your characters are having their experiences and acting out their desires is to provide precise, concrete nouns (“cottage” or “bungalow” or “chateau” instead of merely “house”) and sensory detail—images that lead your reader to visualize, “hear,” imagine smelling and touching and tasting. But the key lies in knowing which details to provide. And the bottom-line rule might be as follows: only provide the details that illuminate the plot. See #3 below.
- There are degrees of place and time. Know the big picture (country/epoch) and move to minute particulars (position in room/minute of the day).
Your reader needs to know fairly early in your story what country your characters are in, and what general time period. The United States in the twenty-first century is easy; however, California in the mid-1950s is different from Georgia in 1862. More distant nations and times need their own markers. The subway in 1954 Tokyo looks and feels different from the 1919 Metro in Madrid. Know these differences and use them to create images for your reader. Remember that your reader doesn’t need to know everything about these places and times—one well-chosen detail can do a great deal of work to establish the general place and time of an event in your story.
After country and general time period, your reader will be pleased to be oriented to more specific information: town or village, city or country? Does your story take place in a real city with a name that your reader is likely to recognize, or are you making up a brand new one? In either case, provide precise nouns and concrete details that will allow your reader to imagine it easily.
Similarly, what time of year is it? Late spring, blossoms on the trees? Horrible high summer in the middle of the Nevada desert, hot and thirsty? Soft winter in Seattle, lots of water, not as cold as Minneapolis might be?
The most intimate degree of time and place is building/room and day/time. Lots of stories gloss over names of cities and countries because being in contemporary America, they’re easily identified, but if your reader can’t visualize or imagine where your characters are in those cities, at what time of day—early evening in a seedy hotel with dust balls in the corners of the narrow stairs; high noon at the farmer’s market, with its pungent flowers and soap vendors among the booths hawking in-season figs and summer squash; a lonely unlit side street in the dead of night—she or he will likely be confused about the importance of the events taking place. A woman sobbing in the hotel lobby will be different from a woman weeping in the farmer’s market, and a female screaming in the unlit street will be chillingly different from both. All this suggests that details of time and place create mood—the mood that your story requires.
- Your reader doesn’t need to know everything about place and time. Provide only the details that give your reader the information he or she needs to imagine the story’s events and atmosphere unfolding most cleanly. Just as there’s no need to provide a precise date at the beginning of every scene, it’s usually self-defeating to describe the location and size of every brick in the façade of the house where your character lives. It may be enough to say the house is brick. Maybe red or gray brick. But if there’s something about the brick that’s relevant to the story—if, say, the bricks are irregular and crumbling, and your character is going to find a lost treasure in a rubble-infested corner of those bricks—then go ahead and create that image for your reader. Otherwise, leave it at “red brick bungalow.”
- Think of setting as scaffolding for your story—infrastructure, if you will, that requires the story to take place in a very particular way. Setting shouldn’t distract your reader but should enable her or him to see—and feel—the story unfold. In other words, setting serves your story. Story comes first.
- Now, having said “story comes first,” let us acknowledge that setting is inextricable from story. Most stories can’t take place anytime or anyplace other than where and when they do. Think of O. Henry’s famous “Gift of the Magi” (see it at https://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Henry/Gift_Magi.pdf): if those lovelorn newlyweds had lived today, they’d never have gone out to get each other’s Christmas presents in the first place—they’d have ordered them online with credit and saved themselves the tragedy of giving away their treasures in exchange for gifts of love.
But do you see what’s happened here? We think of them as having “lived” just because O. Henry gave us three or four sufficient details to imagine them in their dark little apartment in some early-twentieth-century American city: “A furnished flat at $8 per week . . . In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring.”(3) He doesn’t need to tell what time period or what country they’re in. His vocabulary, the cost of rent, the hardly-working old-fashioned accoutrements of the “flat” give us all we need to know. We believe in the characters because we have a few absolutely spot-on details of their place, their time.
And this is the purpose of setting: to create a believable small world that your reader takes for granted because it’s internally consistent and supports the unfolding of the story itself.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly: setting is deployed in either scene or summary.
Summary might be the easiest to explain, but it’s the hardest to use wisely. Writers of really great short fiction summarize the habitual movements of their characters as background to the scenes when something important happens in close-up.
Beginning writers often summarize everything! A beginning writer might summarize the next two paragraphs in “The Gift of the Magi” as follows:
They were very poor, and now Della was deeply sad that she couldn’t buy her beloved husband a present.
This is a not inaccurate representation of the situation. But can you see any details of setting? Sure, summary is vital. You can’t slo-mo everything (as you do in a scene) or your reader will get bored. Summary creates a bridge during times when nothing happens, lays out the way things usually are usually for a character (remember that plot happens when something breaks up the status quo, “the way things usually are usually”), or creates for the reader an accurate sense of time moving on.
But when your reader needs to see action in detail, slow down. Use dialogue. Let props keep your characters busy while they talk. (Yes, think stage management! Who’s doing what “business” during the dialogue?) Just as they do in real life, when important things are happening in your story, minute details of place, time, and personal appearance must impress themselves deeply upon your reader’s senses. Only then will the story live.
Here is how O. Henry handles the despair implied in the “beginning writer” example above:
…appertaining thereunto [on the letter-box] was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.” The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good. (3)
This paragraph summarizes by showing us the status quo. This is what life is like for Della.
The next paragraph switches to scene, to action. Notice the details of setting (the window, the gray cat, the gray fence, the gray backyard) that declare a movement into plot—into conflict and unfulfilled desire: Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. (4)
Ah! Tiny nerve receptors in our brain and body are responding to the visual cues describing the status quo and the actions implying a need to change that status quo. Specific, concrete words, coupled with the powers of observation and feeling, are O. Henry’s tools. Now we are not merely hearing about Della’s world—now we are in it.
- An exercise commonly assigned in introductory creative writing classes to practice the principles of creating setting is to imagine fully, and then write, a scene where two people are enclosed together in a place that one of them hates and the other loves. One of them wants desperately to get away; the other is quite content. But it’s the same place. Your job is to imagine such a place (a dorm room? An elevator? A certain city?). Include enough specific nouns and concrete sensory detail that readers can imagine it—but then let the interaction between the characters show that it can be both desirable and repulsive. Who’s right? What do you want your reader to think?
- John Gardner famously taught a similar exercise (see https://lowenhoward.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/the-john-gardner-challenge/ ): imagine the view of a city as seen from a hill on the edge of that city by a man who has just received word that his son has been killed in a faraway war. Do not mention the son, the war, or death. This is a great exercise for recognizing that the words you choose to provide details of place and time are not merely concrete and specific, but also full of affect. A fireplace can invite or intimidate, a flame can flicker warmly or sear flesh. As always, in this exercise you get to play with words to create the feeling of the setting, the mood, not just objective details of place and time.
- Recast the story you wrote for the “Writing Stories” unit in a different place. Or a different time. Or both. Note how the story has to change. What elements of setting require that the story itself change? Also note that you might need to do some research to make the time shift work, or to be accurate in your depiction of place. Research is part of the fun of writing. Try it!