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Fiction Writing: The Basics of Setting

I am a freelance writer. I write novels, short stories, and nonfiction books. I also specialize in scientific writing.


How To Create Realistic and Compelling Worlds

A narrative's setting is one of the most important literary elements in fiction writing. There are many things to consider when you set out to create a powerful setting for your story. You have to consider the environment your characters will navigate through and enliven the scenes with realistic descriptions of what they might encounter; the shapes, objects, sounds, and smells they might experience. This descriptive storytelling will teleport the reader to this immersive world.

These scenes can be described and summarized by the following elements:

  • Imagery
  • Sensory Information (Sight, Sound, Touch, Smell, Taste)
  • Locale and Time
  • Historical Record
  • Weather
  • Cultural Climate

We will discuss these elements of setting in greater detail below with examples.



Imagery is the vivid description of the story's setting. Imagery is a classic literary device that can transform a dull environment into an immersive world. I will briefly provide an example of imagery so that you can gain a sense of its effectiveness. Consider the powerful images you can create with suggestive words and vocabulary.

Here are some examples of imagery:

  • Angela waved with two palms tirelessly in cool air, mirroring a flapping dove's wing, her angelic movements poignant against a rushing wind. Her hair whipped back from the winds as she stood by an aged oak tree by a wooden cape house. Anthony pulled up rebuilt '84 Camaro; its tires gleamed brightly against the white snow.
  • Robert ran quickly towards a black wall. His back was pulled down by the weight of the world, clawed by its ferocious edges as if he dragged the mountains over his shoulders.

Sensory Information

A setting should evoke every sensation: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. It should stimulate these sensory perceptions in a manner that will invoke images in the reader's mind. In that way, they will be transported to the place you are designing and they will tirelessly forget that they are reading.

Here are a few examples to help illustrate the importance of sensory information:

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  • Mara could smell the burning embers, its rank odor filling the darkened space of the attic, the smoke cloud billowing up from a torched plastic container. She places her cold hand over the tamed flame and feels the heat radiate to her arm. The crackling sound of the plastic burning alerted her roommate, Janet, who ran into the room to find the burning plastic cup; its bluish flame faded with an orange hue as it continued to blaze.
  • Sybil rocked aboard a mast at sea. The waves crashed beside the boat. The cold water splashed aboard the deck, as she kept her hands clean. She could smell the saltwater and aged malt liquor blended aboard the ship.

Locale and Time

The setting should incorporate the general locale of the scene as well as the time of day. It can also include the general characteristic of the environment, such as if it is urban, suburban, or rural. Your setting could also be subterranean, terrestrial, or aerial.

Let me provide an example to illustrate how to incorporate time and locale in your setting.

Here is a few examples of time and locale:

  • The rows of houses extended beyond Alex. He stood a few feet beside a lamp post as the sun waned down near sunset.
  • Howard stood quietly in an elevator as it climbed towards the 39th floor. He glanced at his watch to see if it was late for his four o'clock meeting.
  • The forest was thick, filled with coniferous trees against a rising mountain. The sun had beamed its hot rays over John's shoulders near noon.

Historical Record

A setting can also be enhanced by historical background. This can include exposition about the world up to this point of your narrative, such as historical things, which have occured in the world's past. For example, your story could be based in a different country in a different period of time. You can provide a synopsis to explain what has occurred up to the current point of the story.

These historical details can include:

  • The national history
  • Events that have transpired immediately before the beginning of the narrative
  • Background of characters, such as their relationship with the world


The weather can accentuate the mood of the story. Rain can indicate that there is something somber about the world. A bright day could be joyful. You can complement the scene with weather events to help depict the mood and tone of the world.

There are many weather events that you can incorporate into your writing.

These can include:

  • Rain, Snow, Sleet or any other form precipitation
  • Wind, and different degrees of intensity
  • The temperature such as if its hot, mild, or cold

Social Climate

You can also discuss the political and social climate of the world that you are writing about. Social issues such as poverty, discrimination, crime, and other social issues can be explored to add extra dimensionality to your setting. The combination of these different issues can make your world a realistic place, and bring it to life.

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