The quick definition of setting is that it’s where a story happens. People don’t exist in a vacuum and their interactions with their environments do a lot to add depth to a story. Plus, a unique setting is interesting in its own right and can draw readers into a story.
Settings can be broken down into three components: active, passive and psychological.
The passive parts of a setting are what people most often associate with setting. These aspects are typically static, unchanging. They include:
- The location of surrounding buildings
- General descriptions of landmarks
- The weather, when it just sits there
- Where a character physically is
It’s impossible to create an exhaustive list because settings are infinitely varied, but I hope this gives you some idea. If it’s a part of the setting that just sits there and isn’t remarked on much, it’s passive. An example of a passive-only description of a setting would be:
John was seated at the table. His chair, cheap wood stained a dark red, rested atop a woven throw rug that had been bought from a duty-free airport store. In front of him, a middling-quality china plate rested between stainless steel silverware. A vase holding drooping flowers lay a two and a half feet away in the center of the table. John’s dog lay curled around his feet.
Attention to detail and physical location is great, but not all of it has to be explicit in the writing. Exact measurements of time and distance ("two and a half feet") aren’t always necessary. Plus, like all passive-only settings, this description is static. It’s a picture instead of a movie. No action. So we move on to...
The world changes all the time. Even in the most sedate situations, something is going on. These aspects comprise the active component of setting. They include:
- Other people and beings, not that important to a story (a.k.a. "extras"), doing things
- Automated behavior (a clock striking the hour, a traffic light changing colors)
- Nature’s whimsy (weather that significantly affects the characters, natural disasters, etc.)
- Characters doing things to the setting
- The setting doing things to the characters
Again, an exhaustive list is impossible, but by adding some activity in the background you can make settings more vivid. An example of an active-only description of a setting would be:
John sat down and slid his chair in toward the table. The rug muffled the noise and, after he settled in, his dog curled around his feet. John glanced at the drooping flowers in the table vase and absentmindedly adjusted his silverware and plate.
There’s no information regarding exactly where everything is, but a general sense of place emerges from the actions. The chair has to be close to the table in order for John to slide it toward the table. The rug has to be underneath the chair in order for it to muffle the noise. People are generally familiar with what this setup looks like and where things have to be for the actions to make sense, and they’ll fill in the blanks automatically.
All the same, while this description is active, it’s still a little vague. The chair, rug, silverware and plate are now generic, which is often the same as boring.
So next, let’s combine the two:
John sat down and slid his chair, cheap wood stained a dark red, in toward the table. The woven throw rug, bought from a duty-free airport store, muffled the noise. After he settled in, his dog curled around his feet.
He glanced at the flowers drooping in the table vase and absentmindedly adjusted the stainless steel silverware that flanked his middling-quality china plate.
Finally, settings have psychological aspects as well. Objects aren’t mute, distant things. They have history. They mean things to people and have reasons to exist, and that should come through in writing. Whether they have cultural significance, they provoke memories/emotional reactions, or a character wants to do something to the setting, they have their own sort of life.
The psychological aspects of setting tend to be rather weak on their own (weaker than even active-only or passive-only descriptions), so I’m going to add them to the most recent description (and italicize them so they stand out):
John sat down and slid his chair, cheap wood stained a dark red, in toward the table. He enjoyed setting up for dinner this way; it made him feel rich. His woven throw rug, bought from a duty-free airport store, muffled the noise. After waiting for him to settle in, his dog curled around his feet.
He glanced at the table vase. He’d have to change the drooping flowers soon, but they’d do for now. As he thought, he adjusted the stainless steel silverware that flanked his middling-quality china plate.
Together, all three aspects of setting combine to markedly increase the vividness of a story.
(Note for the obsessively categorical: The distinctions between the categories aren't iron-clad and absolute. In fact, most good descriptions weave the three together nearly seamlessly, and also combine them with action. When you break things down so that you can focus on and talk about them, much of the organic fluidity and life is always lost.)
Setting the Scene
- Establish a basic, bare-bones setting. Two to three paragraphs should be all you need.
- Next, read over what you’ve written and notice how it feels. If there are any places it feels vague, try adding more passive components. If it feels boring, try adding active components. If it feels a bit disconnected from the character, try adding psychological components.
- Lather, rinse, and repeat.
Practice, reading over what you wrote, and making changes are vital parts of becoming a better writer.
- The more a setting is explicitly described, the more important the setting itself should be.
- Faster paces usually skew towards active and psychological components.