Sha – lee  \ shah-lē’\ – noun

1. A mother of a baby boy who giggles like an evil villain.
2. One who has written YA science fiction since before she knew it had a name.
3. A woman with a passion for all things related to the country of Ghana, Africa.

Archaic: A BYU grad who studied English lit and creative writing.


There are three major topics every basic creative writing class covers: plot, setting, and character. In most classes I’ve taken, we go into great detail about both plot and character. But we often overlook the sad middle child of setting.

In movies, it’s often absolutely key—look at Avatar. It had a basic, predictable plot and basic, predictable characters, but the setting . . . that was totally sweet. Of course, movies have it easier since the setting stares you right in the face. And I think that’s exactly why it gets ignored in writing. It’s a lot harder to bring out a brilliant setting with words than with pictures.

But setting is much more than just what the physical surroundings of your story looks like. It’s the entire world, and how characters react to and interact with it. They affect it, it affects them, and that relationship affects the reader. Now, I’m not going to talk about macro setting here (your entire world, with all its societies and locations). We’re looking at micro setting—those smaller, immediate settings that really grab a reader. It can be as simple as a bedroom or as elaborate as a low-g bounce house on the moon (check out Feed to see that done really cool).

Recently, I listened to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road on tape. It’s about an abandoned road in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by cannibals—and a father and son trying to stay away from them. In one scene, the father and son find a large, once-beautiful house near the road. Inside, they find a trap-door in the pantry, padlocked. In desperate need of food, the father breaks it open to find a terrified, naked hoard of human beings.

Remember, this is a story populated by cannibals.

This scene stuck with me for one main reason: the setting. To find people in a cannibalistic story locked in a pantry—well, that in and of itself is completely revolting. And the terror of the scene . . . ooh, just go read it. Because in addition to the complete horror of human beings kept in a pantry, you know it means the cannibals are nearby, and you wonder just how nearby and if the father and son can escape that pantry. That scene stuck with me because it brought out strong emotions, and they were emotions that connected me to the characters through their reactions. The setting enhanced both characterization and plot.

And that’s what setting is really, really good for. You want to evoke strong emotions in your reader. You want them to identify with your characters, and you want your plot to keep your reader reading. Setting can help you do all this. It can help establish tones and themes. It can help reveal your character’s inner thoughts and feelings by how they react to it. It can take your story from ho-hum to completely unforgettable.

So, then. How exactly do you get your setting to your reader? Passages so flowery you could shred the manuscript and use it for potpourri? Stark details hidden like Where’s Waldo throughout the scene? Check back Wednesday for part 2, and we’ll talk about how to make your setting as alive as your characters.

3 thoughts on “[guest post] setting: the forgotten middle child part 1

  1. That pantry scene is so vivid that even without having read the book I ended up with a nightmare about it! Me and everyone I know were kidnapped by trolls and taken underground where they tricked us into thinking it was a beach vacation and in a very Emperor’s-New-Clothes sense made us think we were wearing clothes and having a great time when we were really naked and about to be eaten and I was the only one catching on. So yeah, apparently a vivid setting can really toy with a reader’s imagination.

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