Setting and Atmosphere

How to Bring Readers into a Vivid Story Word

Now that your characters are in action, it's time to put them in their place. That place is your story's setting.

Setting does not mean scenery. Far more than just a painted backdrop against which events play out, the setting is a vital force that impinges on the characters and their situations. The setting influences their behavior and provides obstacles that must be overcome. It creates moods and affects emotions for characters and readers alike.

When you write a story you are creating a new world and bidding your readers to enter it. You want us to accept it as true, even when it is jarringly at odds with what we assume about reality. We know Cinderella's kingdom does not exist, but we willingly go there anyway.

The setting establishes the physical and cultural landscape of your invented world. It provides the story's ambiance, the atmosphere that surrounds the characters and readers alike. Rather than a travelogue with long descriptive passages, the setting is most effectively rendered by showing the characters in action within it. Through careful selection of details, you can draw readers directly into the story world, letting us experience it by looking over the characters' shoulders and even through their eyes.

The story world can be modeled on a real place or it can be wholly imagined. It can be restrictive or expansive, small or large: a room, a building, a neighborhood, a city, a region, a planet. Settings are frequently layered, with smaller ones contained within larger ones: We are in this room in this house in this neighborhood in this region, like a set of wooden dolls that nest one inside the other. Each layer contributes to the richness of the fictional environment.

In Eudora Welty's Death ofa Traveling Salesman, for instance, the salesman is lost on a dead-end country road in the deep South when his car goes into a ditch. He seeks help at a primitive farmhouse, the only habitation around. Most of the action takes place inside the cabin's main room. All of these elements—the dark room, the crude house, the rural isolation, the fact that we are in the South—add to the story's meaning and impact.

As a story moves from scene to scene, the setting changes but always remains within the parameters of the story world. It's been said that short stories have a narrower range and reach than novels; with their limited length there's not enough room for running all over the earth. But a short story can be global in scope. As Shaila, protagonist of Bharati Mukherjee's The Management of Grief, copes with the deaths of her husband and sons, she moves from Toronto, to which the family had emigrated; to Ireland, off whose coast the fatal plane crash occurred; to her homeland of India; and back to Toronto again—all in the course of sixteen pages. What unites these disparate localities is the role they play in Shaila's search for personal definition. The story world consists of the stations on her journey from her old sense of self to her new one.

Occasionally the setting is the story. Ray Bradbury's short story, There Will Come Soft Rains, has all the elements of a dramatic narrative—except characters. This tale, amusing yet devastating in its effect, puts us inside a typical family home of the future on the day after the Bomb is dropped. No one is left. The automated devices that controlled the daily routines of the house and the family sputter on. The house and its contents become the characters; the story and the setting are one and the same.

Bradbury's story is extreme in eliminating human characters altogether, but for many authors, the setting functions almost like another character. It is an active power that participates in shaping events, establishing a mood, and bringing readers into the story world.

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