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Back to Basics: Setting

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

For this Back to Basics mini-course, we’re talking about setting. Each Back to Basics course includes a challenge at the end to help you experiment. Let’s look at the basics.

Setting is an important aspect of creative writing because it’s the place where the story unfolds. Settings are typically physical places, but they don’t always have to be (more on that later). In this Back To Basics blog, we'll discuss some rules for creating a setting in your story.

#1: Figure out what type of setting your story needs

Like I mentioned earlier, settings are typically physical places, but they don’t always have to be. They can also be cultural. In Brandon Sanderson’s video lecture on Worldbuilding, there are some things to consider about physical and cultural settings. Physical settings are ones which would be able to exist without characters. Elements of physical setting include: weather, magic, climate, flora/fauna, terrain. Cultural settings are ones which exist because of characters. Elements of cultural setting include: government, religion, military, economies, fashion. You don’t have to choose between only doing a physical or a cultural setting, there’s room to use elements of both! However, if writers try to incorporate too many of these physical and cultural elements as they can, it can be overwhelming. Both to the writer and the audience! It’s best to keep things a little simple. For example, it may be helpful to pick one physical element to focus on and then a handful of cultural aspects to focus on.

#2: Don’t take a dump

Now you may have heard of the term ‘info-dump’ before. An info-dump is when a writer tends to explain large amounts of information (about the plot, characters, etc—this is also known as exposition) to the reader. Info-dumps tend to read very long and can really take readers out of the moment. While writers absolutely should deliver important information about the story to the audience (imagine how strange watching Star Wars would be if the Force was never once mentioned), the way in which it should be delivered is important.

Tips for this (also from Sanderson’s lecture) include spreading the information out through dialogue and grounding your readers. Having conversations between characters which contain some exposition can be really helpful. Like most things though, try not to be excessive. If John Doe tells his friend Sally when he bought his house and why, that’s good! But if the ‘why’ John bought it goes on for four paragraphs, that might be a bit much. Let the characters have a conversation and then any information given will start to feel much more natural. If you want more information about writing dialogue, consider checking out our Back To Basics blog on that.

Another useful tip is to try and ground your readers by showing rather than telling. So if there’s a problem in the world, instead of saying the problem, show a very specific example of the problem in action, in the world. This way, you help readers discover the setting on their own without having to spell everything out for them.

#3: How do your characters see it

This rule comes from Katrina Kittle during a Writer’s Digest Conference. Do all characters see the setting the same or through a different lens? Settings are important because they mean something to the characters but not all characters see a setting in the same way. The protagonist's view of a setting is likely completely different to how the antagonist sees it. The way a character describes the setting can tell the reader a lot about the character. For example, if there’s a thunderstorm beginning to rain over an open field; a ballerina might describe it very differently than a surgeon would.

#4: Find a sweet spot for description

This rule comes from Stephen King’s On Writing: writers should consider details that are specific to their setting and really define the place. Good description is a visualization of what you should want the reader to imagine. King also recommends finding a balance with description. Thin/short descriptions can be difficult to imagine and leave the reader confused, where overdescription will bombard the reader with too many details. Try to find a sweet spot: not too little, not too much. Consider figuring out which details readers need to be given and then which things can be left to their own imagination.

#5: Utilize the senses

Try to utilize as many of the five senses as you can. Things like textures, smells, and sounds can help set the tone of a setting for readers. Another thing to consider is that in video games, movies, and shows, directors often give very specific background music to certain locations. Creating a playlist for yourself can help you as a writer evoke a certain mood for yourself as you write, which can also help make the writing process itself much more productive and seamless.

To summarize, setting is a very important part of creative writing that needs careful attention. Good settings can really enhance a story and provide opportunities for characters to learn things about themselves and others. Now that we’ve discussed setting, it’s time to try out the challenge.

The Challenge:

Describe the same setting from both the protagonist's and antagonist's view.

How do they perceive the world differently? Aim for anywhere from 500-1000 words.

Thanks for joining us for this Back to Basics course. If you tried this month’s challenge, you can share it on our forum or on social media using #WWB2B. You can also send us your challenge for feedback as soon as possible, via dropbox on our Back to Basics page. A special thanks to Jen for assisting with the research for this month’s topic. Thank you, and I will see you all next time!


About the Author: Izhan Arif is a Teaching of English major at UIC who loves to write in his spare time. Izhan is also a very big fan of comic books and comic book TV shows and movies, he hopes to write his own comic books at some point as well.


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