Settings: the neglected tool

Settings in fiction run the risk of being neglected. It’s easy to be vague about where your story is set, or choosing a setting just because you need one, but in doing so you are forgetting to make use of an important writing tool.


Settings serve a purpose:

Settings work the same way that real places do, they all serve a purpose. A playground is for playing and a library for reading and borrowing books. What purpose does your setting serve? How do your settings relate to and work with your plot?


What does a setting mean to your character?

Be it a playground, a place of worship, a library, a police station, people associate specific feelings with them. For some a police station is a place of safety, for others a place to avoid and for a selected few, a place of terror. Ask yourself what your setting means to your character, and link that into your story.


Play with stereotypes:

While writers are often told to avoid stereotypes, they can work to your advantage when it comes to settings. A cemetery is associated with death, ghosts and sadness, so if you need to invoke those feelings then consider it as a setting for one of your scenes. Think of all the stereotypical places that you have seen in movies or read about in books: the abandoned mental institution, bachelor pad, haunted house, spinster’s house, morgue, church, high school. What feelings does each of these places invoke in you?



While playing on stereotypical settings can work to your advantage, so too can going against what is expected. Does a ghost story need to be set in an old, dilapidated house with a raging storm trapping the unsuspecting victims inside? Why not set it in a modern-day, high-tech office building? The horror genre took an interesting turn when monsters left the mountains of Transylvania and far-reaching, foreign countries and turned up on the doorsteps of suburbia. Placing the expected in an unexpected setting can add to feelings of abnormality, wrongness and fear in your readers.


In essence, neglecting the setting when writing your story is a mistake. There is so much that setting can add to the atmosphere, feel and underlying emotions of your scenes, so much that it can say without you needing to spell it out for the reader.

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