The Journal: A Question on Writing Setting

In today’s Journal

* Quote of the Day
* Topic: A Question on Writing Setting
* The Numbers

Quote of the Day

“The settings you create, the characters you bring to life, the stories you imagine into existence—those are important! Most readers don’t care if you can do stylistic handsprings. What they want is story that grabs them, holds them, and moves them.” David Farland

Topic: A Question on Writing Setting

A writer (not a Journal reader, I think) wrote to ask me about writing setting. I thought my response would make a good topic for the Journal. He wrote

“Dean … told me that I needed to work on my settings. I couldn’t quite pull him into the story. I’ve been told this about my settings or lack of before…. I think I tend to start with the action and propel forward from there which doesn’t really ground the reader.”

Actually, starting in the midst of action and propelling forward from there doesn’t ground the reader (pull him into the story) at all.

The writer also wrote that in some “Best of” collections he’s read, the stories tend to start with the action. Actually, it only seems that way. I’ve never been able to find a story or novel that I enjoyed that started only with action. Not one. And I’ve looked.

I can’t argue with what my recent correspondent read, but in many stories and novels that I thought started with action, when I went back to look at them, they didn’t. Actually they started with setting (however briefly) and character description, then went into the action.

I always ground the reader in the setting at the start of every major scene in any short story or novel. Always. The comment I get most often from readers of my work is that they feel as if they’re in the scene with the character. I can’t think of any better praise.

Use what the POV character notices (sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches) with his physical senses as he goes in, plus his opinions of the setting. Is he in a bad mood, a good mood? Why?

For just one example, say you have a rat exterminator in a barn. How does he start exterminating rats without first letting the reader know the barn is dimly lighted, thin stripes of sunlight stretching across the barn floor, motes of dust floating in them?

It’s hot and humid, sweat tickling its way down his cheeks. The barn smells of hay and old wood and the dust makes his headache throb a little more? Let him gripe a little. How can there be so much dust when the air hangs heavy with humidity. collecting smells? And the barrel of his flashlight moving in his pocket, cold and annoying through his trousers? Maybe a yearling colt shuffles in a stall, nervous at his entrance.

To the left is a bandsaw. For an instant he smells the cut wood and it reminds him of the taste of cherry pies. His mouth waters at the thought. His grandfather used to eat one of his grandmother’s delicious little cherry half-moon pies with the pinched edge in his wood shop each morning before starting work. And he always brought an extra for Character First Name.

Or say a bad guy is going to murder an old man in his bed. Does the murder actually occur against a setting-less white backdrop? No. The house is dark and cold. The hallway or stairs creak as the killer moves through, and then the heater kicks on. Or the door hinges squeal lightly.

Even if the story opens with the killer bending over the bed and reaching for a pillow with which to smother the victim, it doesn’t open against a blank canvas.

If the setting is a hospital, there’s the distant clacking of shoes in the hallway outside. There’s the cold steel rail alongside the bed, maybe a saline drip attached to the veins in one wrist, the underlying smell of disinfectant, the dim light of the parking lot streetlights outside, the various colored indicator lights and sounds from various machines in the room. You get the idea.

If you DO want to start literally in the middle of the action, go ahead and write the action scene. Then, to give your story more depth and ground the reader from the beginning, back up and write what happened in the few seconds or minutes leading up to the action. And include the setting then.

Your setting and character description might be only a few sentences, but take your time. In some short stories, the setting and character description takes up the first paragraph or the first few paragraphs. In a novel, depending on genre, it might take up a few chapters.

Just be absolutely certain every words of it comes from the character, not from the writer (you). Every description should be filtered through the physical and emotional (dread, fear, joy, elation, etc.) senses of the character.

And provide the character’s opinion of the setting. In the opinion of the character, is the column in the room “ostentatious” or “silly” or “stupid”? Is the carpeting on the floor “ugly” or “puke-green” or “a really pretty lavender”? etc. Are the beeps from the machine next to the hospital bed annoying or incriminating? Is the victim thin, pale, even sallow? Is he heavy, with ruddy cheeks? Does he open his eyes as the pillow descends?

Start with setting to ground your reader and pull him deep into the scene. Your writing and your story will be richer for it.

Here are a few links to other articles I’ve written on this topic:

“Character, Setting, and Grounding the Reader”

“The Importance of Setting (and How to Write It): Part One”

“The Importance of Setting (and How to Write It): Part Two”

“Chapter 6 — Writing Setting, and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part I”

“Chapter 6—Writing Setting, and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part II”

The last two reference above are from my book, Writing the Character Driven Story, which you can find at

Again, scenes (even action scenes) do not happen against a white background. Think back about stories and novels you’ve read and enjoyed. Go back to them. If it’s a novel, read the opening of the novel and then the openings of a few chapters.

Read with a writer’s eyes and study the openings. Look for how the author grounded you and pulled you into the story. And that goes double for the ones you think opened with action.

I didn’t write on the novel yesterday. Back to it (anxiously) this morning.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Your Better Half” at

See “Time For Merry Rest” at

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1130 words

Writing of The Journey Home: Part 3 (novel)

Day 1…… 1568 words. Total words to date…… 1568
Day 2…… 2963 words. Total words to date…… 4531
Day 3…… 4652 words. Total words to date…… 9183
Day 4…… 5506 words. Total words to date…… 14689
Day 5…… 4107 words. Total words to date…… 18796
Day 6…… 5001 words. Total words to date…… 23797
Day 7…… 4256 words. Total words to date…… 28053

Total fiction words for December……… 77476
Total fiction words for the year………… 530007
Total nonfiction words for December… 15350
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 200560
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 730567

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 8
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 13
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 53
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 214
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

2 thoughts on “The Journal: A Question on Writing Setting”

  1. Thanks, Harvey! All these examples on setting are so helpful. I write teen romances and struggle to get down deep in my settings but notice how much better the writing seems when I do. Thanks again.

    • You’re welcome. The secret is to let the character describe the setting and then give her another pass on it during cycling.

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