How to Write the Setting of a Story that
Readers Relate To
What is the purpose of story setting and how do you establish it?
A story setting has a role to play and that is one of creating a sense of “being there” for
readers. A description of your story’s setting should establish a time and place in the reader’s
mind and helps them to visualize the characters in that time and place.
Story setting is not just a description of a mountain landscape, an urban street, or a country
farmhouse. Setting is more than a visual description, it should also convey the sense of being
there by describing what a reader (and character) might feel, hear, smell, sense, or taste in a
Story Setting – the Misunderstood Element of Writing Fiction
Writing a story setting is often confused with writing descriptively (writing descriptively is often
confused with writing well; see the section on Descriptive Writing for more information). You
want to describe the environment that your character finds herself in, but to do it effectively you
must consider certain novel writing elements.
Some writers will tell you that the setting of a story is the most often mismanaged, abused, even
ignored element of writing. The reason for this may be due to a number of novel writing faux
1. The setting of a story is not detailed or specific enough and does not give the reader a
sense of being swept away to another place and time.
2. The writer, an expounder, goes on for pages and pages about the visual image of a setting
without a character, smell, feeling, or sound in the environment.
3. The writer, a minimalist, briefly describes the setting of a story – “It was a cold winter.”
– Again, without placing a character in the environment or allowing the reader a way to
relate to the cold.
How to Write the Details of Story Setting
A mountain landscape is beautiful in itself – a setting that nearly anyone can imagine – but a
writer should give readers a sense of a particular landscape at a particular time. Is the landscape
set in Vermont’s rolling hills of Hogback Mountain or in Colorado’s sky-high peaks of Mount
Elbert in the Rockies? Is the altitude high enough that clouds seems to glide through the
mountain and cold enough that snow accumulates on its peaks? Does the air feel fresh, icy, smell
of wildflowers? What particular wildlife is indigenous to the area? Does your character hear the
baleful sound of moose? Do eagles nest in the trees there?
An urban street may be crowded with people passing by on their way to and from work, have
the smells of restaurants serving the lunch crowd, may even have homeless men or women
panhandling or lying on the streets with their sacks of personal belongings.
Inside the country farmhouse smells may blend together. Your character may smell the stench
of manure on the dairy farmer’s boots sitting at the back door, the sickly sweet scent wafting in
from the feed silo every time the kitchen door is opened, and the cinnamon fragrance of fresh
baked pies – made from apples, ripe for picking on the tree out back and served with homemade
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