What affect does the setting have?

I have written before about how a setting is important for a story and how I usually like to open a story with a description of a setting because it sets a scene and makes a background for your characters to exist in. I like to think of it like the backdrop in a stage performance, it’s not always crucial to the story being told but it is important that it is there to help the audience enjoyment. There are various parts of the setting that can be described to help the reader make a picture in their head of the world the story takes place in, if any of these things sound obvious then it is because what can be described is the same things most of us experience every day.

Starting with the most obvious, what does the setting look like? It can be easy as a writer to say something simple like ‘The characters found themselves in a forest…’ but just saying that does not help the scene come to life, there are hundreds of different types of forest and while I doubt there is a writer out there who describes their character to be in an ‘evergreen non-coniferous forest’ any description can help. My go to point of description is usually the lighting, I find that a description of lighting can make a scene sound calming, relaxing and enjoyable or horrifying, dreary, intimidating, that sort of thing. In one of my short stories I have used the lighting in just that way, a character enters a house and…

‘the sunlight streamed into the darkened room and filled it with light, the small dust particles that float up with every footfall glittering in the beams of the sun and dancing a merry dance in the gust of wind that floats in behind you.’

While this is far from my best descriptive work ever I think it paints a rather nice and calm image of the setting which I later describe. Later in the story a character examines the same house at night and notices with the lower light levels that what was previously charming is now shadowy and creepy and ‘possibly hiding anything in the recesses.’ it is not just the light levels though that can be described, going back to the forest idea how tall are the trees? Are they straight? Are there leaves on the ground? Is there evidence of any animals around or it is barren, are there leaves on the trees. It is the same for a room in a house, what are the walls like? Is there carpet? It sounds obvious but how the area looks might be the most important thing.

Something else I like to describe is the wind, if there is any in the scene. How fast or slow is it blowing and is it cold or warm? This can be used to help with the description of how our theoretical forest looks, is the wind blowing the trees about? The wind is important for a lot of other describable points, if the wind is cold then the characters are probably cold, is the wind whistling? Is the sound ominous? Is there anything to smell? That can be carried to the characters by the wind. If you add all these aspects together you could end with a very promising setting…

‘The forest was old, the trees stood tall, reaching towards the gods with branches barren of leaves. The wind blew softly through between trunks, thicker and stronger than any i had encountered before, and brought with it an uncomfortable warmth and the smell of fire and burning, though not of burning wood. In the distance the dark night sky had turned a murky orange and the longer I stood there the brighter the glow seemed to get…’

when it all comes together I think that makes a rather compelling opening paragraph that i hope would intrigue the reader to want to know more and all I did was describe the sights and smells of the forest the character finds themselves in. From that opening I could take a potential story anywhere, the most obvious idea would be to have the character find out what is burning, I made it clear that it wasn’t the woods though at the same time i think if i was stuck in that situation i might just as likely head away from the probably fire, it could go either way, the light doesn’t even have to be a plot point (though it has to be by the rule of Chekov’s gun.)

Another short post again I guess but as always I’m tired and if I feel I am just going over obvious points of writing really. Tomorrow I might post one of my own stories in whole for people to read though I’ll say now that they are all in first draft form and the spelling and grammar is likely terrible.



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