Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It was a dark and stormy night...

The cheesiest and worst opening ever, I know. Yet it does serve its purpose, which is to create the setting. What is setting? The question seems easy doesn't it? It's the location of your story. Duh. But is it really that simple? In a word: No.

Setting, or milieu, is one of the four basic factors that make up every story. When creating a scene, the setting is everything that surrounds the characters; and I mean everything. Here's a list of various aspects of the setting that need to be taken into account in order to create a believable setting:
  • Location: This can be anything from the room your characters are in to the planet they're on. It includes the physical objects nearby as well as the scenic skyline afar off. It is everything the characters will interact with during the scene. If your character is going to get in a bar brawl, the bottle he grabs is a piece of the setting right up until he shatters it on the edge of the bar and points it at his opponent.

    Location is the most common aspect of a story and the one that most people get right... for the most part. It's easy to describe a room your character is in, as well as the objects he or she will need throughout the scene. But what about the scenery? Make sure to include descriptions of items that will set the mood of the scene. This could be the dying embers of the campfire, the meaty scent of the roast in the oven, or the vast collection of family portraits hanging on the walls. These "background" objects go a long way to showing your reader how the setting feels to your characters.
  • Culture: This includes the laws of the land, village customs, city attitudes, the social roles of your character and so on. You can describe a city all the way down to the shape of the cobblestones in the streets, but without some culture your city will be just a flat collection of buildings. If your character is walking down the street, describe the way the citizens around him act. Maybe a couple is arguing loudly outside their home, or a patrol of foot soldiers is making the rounds, eying everyone they pass. The point is, give your locations some personality, some quirks, and some vices. This will bring them more to life than simply describing the buildings reaching for the sky.
  • Environment: Weather can have a strong affect on the scene you set. Is it raining? Sunny? Does the wind nearly blow your characters off their feet, or does the heavy fog obscure everything outside arms length? Weather is a great way to set the mood of your scene. Sunny days will typically portray hope or joy while rain can be depressing or even romantic. Fog is a common way to create an eerie feeling.

    This applies even if you are writing an indoor scene. What's the weather like outside. Does the soft pitter-patter of rain on the tin roof of the shed drive your hiding protagonist insane? Or does the bright rays of sunlight streaming through an open window fill her with hope for the first time in ages?

    But weather is not the only environmental effect to take into consideration. How about day or night? Which season is it? It doesn't even have to be of this planet. The vacuum of space can be a terrifying prospect for your character. Space is cold, lonely, and deadly. If you're a sci-fi author creating a new planet, design some crazy weather or other environmental effects that will fill your readers with wonder and your characters with dread. Have fun with it.
In the end, setting is just as important as your plot, your characters, and your ideas. Take the time to flesh out your world and make it really come to life on the page. Your readers will thank you for it.

Challenge Accepted
I haven't given a writing prompt at the end of a post in a long time, but this seems like an appropriate post to pick up with again. So, here's the challenge: Take a scene and rewrite it three times, with all the same characters and plot points, but in each scene, change the weather, whether it's indoors or out, and see how rain, wind, and sunshine change the way characters think, act, and feel. As always, I did the same and you can read my Challenge here.

Until then, have fun, and write something.


  1. Great post! The weather is something I need to be more conscious about in my writing. As your "Challenge" post illustrates, weather and time of day can change everything.

  2. ...stealthy following links from 'escapepod' ... hey Cutter, MitD here... your blog looks suspiciously like idea structuring for future sharing...I am inspired... I must investigate further.
    Cheers -- MitD