How to Make Your Story’s Setting Work for You

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I’ve been thinking a lot about setting lately. Perhaps it’s because my own surroundings — necessarily constant thanks to pandemic stay-at-home orders — offer so little variety. I’ve found myself longing for my favorite destinations and wondering when I’ll visit them again.

Luckily for me, I’m a writer. We can write stories that take place anywhere we want. This has been therapeutic for me as I look forward to a far more stationary summer than I had planned.

Are you pondering setting, too? Here are a few considerations to keep in mind as you travel between story worlds.

Choose a setting that makes you feel something

If you don’t feel strongly while writing your story, your readers are unlikely to feel much, either. Don’t overlook your setting as a way to build emotional connections. In some stories, the setting even begins to feel like a character unto itself.

Your setting choice can also allow you to travel somewhere interesting or significant. I’ve set stories in towns based on my childhood home, and my current project takes place at the beach. We’re currently under stay-at-home orders for the covid-19 pandemic. I can’t remember the last time I went this long without seeing the ocean. My settings allow me to escape to places near and dear to my heart. This emotion will naturally seep onto the page.

If you choose a setting that requires research, make it a place that captures your interest and imagination. You might even use it as an excuse to visit that place in person!

Whatever setting you choose, make it one that stirs your curiosity or holds special meaning. By placing your story there, you act as a tour guide for your readers. Make it a journey to remember.

Explore how your characters fit into your setting

Whether it’s a big city or a rural community, we expect a certain type of home and character from each setting. The most interesting stories challenge those assumptions and reveal something we hadn’t previously considered.

How your character fits into your setting and our assumptions about it tells us a lot about that person. Some characters have roots in a place, but struggle to blend in like the rest of their family. They long for someplace else. Others come in as transplants and must learn to navigate a new environment. Sometimes characters blend in — or fail to — in obvious ways. Other times they bury those aspects of themselves deep beneath the surface. Explore how your characters fit in and what that reveals about them.

Know why you’ve set the story where you have

People often ask authors about their settings. As a reader, I’ve been known to choose books based on where they take place as much as what happens there. In other words, don’t ignore your setting because others certainly won’t.

You needn’t be heavy-handed, but you should know why you chose your story’s setting. Maybe you simply love the place and want others to experience it as you have. It can be that simple.

Or you can use your setting to raise awareness about social issues you care about. Setting gives us opportunities to reveal oft-overlooked pulls in the fabric of society. You may choose to show your character bumping up against issues of inequality or oppression. How they react to those issues will not only contribute to character development, but give you a sneaky opening to educate your reader and challenge their assumptions.

Your reasons for setting your story where you do can be as fun or serious as you like. The only requirement is you have them.

Look beyond the physical location

Your setting can help you establish the mood or even nudge your plot forward. Look beyond the basics of physical location to make your setting an active participant in the story. Consider the time of day, time of year, weather, or notable events like parades or festivals.

I chose to begin my last novel, set in rural Pennsylvania, in October. Fall is a moody season there, sometimes sweet and sometimes ruthless, one where you literally feel the winds of change in your bones. These dynamic shifts, as well as the sense of foreboding — things ending and dying — mirror what’s happening in the story.

You can choose to be subtle or dramatic when using setting in your plot. In her gorgeous novel Salvage the Bones, author Jessmyn Ward tells a story against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the Gulf Coast. However, you might choose something more mundane but no less present: Vermont’s “mud season,” or Florida’s oppressive humidity and near-daily rainstorms.

However you choose to engage your setting, give it agency in your story. Don’t let readers forget where they are — or what it means to be there.

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About Author

Jaclyn Paul is a fiction writer and blogger based in Baltimore. You might know her from The ADHD Homestead, where she writes about building a good life and a peaceful home with adult ADHD. She's also a staff blogger for Inkitt and author of the book Order from Chaos – The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD. Her writing has appeared online in Offbeat Families, The Write Life, ADDResources, Better Novel Project, and ADHD Roller Coaster and in print in Houston Family Magazine.

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