Yes, Settings Do Matter: Basic Storytelling Elements Part 7

Welcome to my ten-part series where we’ll be going through the ten basics of storytelling as outlined in my guidebook The 10 Lost Elements of Storytelling – a book you can get for free by subscribing to my newsletter! In these posts, we’ll pound out the basics of these storytelling elements, but my guidebook is more detailed on some subjects and provides examples and resources. All you need to do is say “yes” to receiving a fun, inspirational, and educational newsletter once a month.

Out of all these elements we’re talking about, I personally think that setting is one we’ve truly “lost,” as the title of my guidebook claims. When you read the classics – Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Victor Hugo, even L. M. Montgomery – you’ll notice that they spend lots of time on vivid descriptions. The settings are not just “there;” they’re vibrant and real, and they add something unique to the story.

Just to prove this, I picked a book from my classics shelf – it happened to be A Tale of Two Cities – and turned to a page at random. Take a look at this quote at the end of a chapter:

He was driven on, and other carriages came whirling by in quick succession; the Minister, the State-Projector, the Farmer-General, the Doctor, the Lawyer, the Ecclesiastic, the Grand Opera, the Comedy, the whole Fancy Ball in a bright continuous flow, came whirling by. The rats had crept out of their holes to look on, and they remained looking on for hours; soldiers and police often passing between them and the spectacle, and making a barrier behind which they slunk, and through which they peeped. The father had long ago taken up his bundle and bidden himself away with it, when the women who had tended the bundle while it lay on the base of the fountain, sat there watching the running of the water and the rolling of the Fancy Ball—when the one woman who had stood conspicuous, knitting, still knitted on with the steadfastness of Fate. The water of the fountain ran, the swift river ran, the day ran into evening, so much life in the city ran into death according to rule, time and tide waited for no man, the rats were sleeping close together in their dark holes again, the Fancy Ball was lighted up at supper, all things ran their course.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens just demonstrated my point for me before I even got a chance to say it. The setting isn’t just a place to put the plot; it’s an integral part of the story that can enforce the tone and theme (as it does in the Dickens passage), influence the plot, and change the characters.

That’s why your setting must be intentional. It’s not an afterthought, but a part of the story that’s planned right along with everything else. In a way, the setting is like a passive character, influencing all the other elements of the story though it doesn’t change itself.

And this is the art that has fallen by the wayside in modern-day storytelling. Not only are our settings just used as a place for the story to happen, but we also neglect to describe settings well – and that’s what the reader’s imagination can latch onto. That’s how they put themself into the story.

So, it doesn’t matter where you’re setting is. Whether it’s right in your hometown or completely made up, it must be real to you. Otherwise, it won’t be real to your reader.

My point today is twofold. The most important thing is to choose your setting with intention, but the second is significant, too: up your description game. Sure, we tend to be engaged by lots of action and dialogue, but descriptions can be some of the best parts of the book and you can use them to serve several functions – just as Dickens did in the excerpt above.

Don’t forget the setting; it’s where your story – and your readers – will live.

Happy writing!
-E.J.

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Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash

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