How to Imagine a Perfect Setting for Your Short Story?

Can you imagine a story without a setting? Would you be able to understand the characters or events of the story? Study a painting by famous Filipino artist Fernando Amorsolo. Figure out when and where the scene took place. Can you tell the people’s way of living, even their economic status, through the setting?

The setting of the story refers to where the events take place. Does the story happen in a certain city, in another country, in the wilderness, under the sea? Does the hero go on adventures in faraway lands or in another dimension? The setting also refers to the time period in which the events took place. If the story happened in the sixteenth century, the setting must show houses and infrastructures that existed during Spanish times. If the story is science fiction, the setting might be in the future or on a different planet. Remember that the setting has a great effect on the characters in terms of their behavior, attitude, lifestyle, and values.

An eighteenth-century character does not think or behave in the same way as a character from modern times. Thus, setting is a fiction element that must be clearly established by the writer.

Rudyard Kipling’s book, The Man Who Would be King, shows how a detailed description is vital in setting the scene. Details or information regarding the things that we might perceive with our senses is an essential element in creative writing. These details will give the reader a lively scene. It is important for the reader to be able to create a mental picture of where and when the events occur. In order to achieve this, we must use sensory impressions which appeal to our five senses such as sight, taste, smell, hearing, and touch. Using details with sensory impressions will create a setting that is more realistic to the readers.

Study the following examples and try to visualize the setting using the given descriptions:

Example 1:

It was a pitchy-black night, as stifling as a June night can be, and the loo, the red-hot wind from the westward, was booming among the tinder-dry trees and pretending that the rain was on its heels. Now and again a spot of almost boiling water would fall on the dust with the flop of a frog, but all our weary world knew that was only pretence. It was a shade cooler in the press-room than the office, so I sat there, while the type ticked and clicked, and the night-jars hooted at the windows, and the all but naked compositors wiped the sweat from their foreheads and called for water. The thing that was keeping us back, whatever it was, would not come off, though the loo dropped and the last type was set, and the whole round earth stood still in the choking heat, with its finger on its lip, to wait the event. I drowsed, and wondered whether the telegraph was a blessing, and whether this dying man, or struggling people, might be aware of the inconvenience the delay was causing. There was no special reason beyond the heat and worry to make tension, but, as the clock-hands crept up to three o-clock and the machines spun their fly-wheels two and three times to see that all was in order, before I said the word that would set them off, I could have shrieked aloud.
– Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would be King

Based on this example, were you able to visualize the scene? How did the writer convey the setting? Do the lines or details appeal to your senses? Which of the five senses were used to create the setting? Study the second example and find lines that appeal to the senses.

Example 2:

The streets within the walls of the city are scenes of life and bustle, while in the suburbs stand the residences of those who can afford to live in peace and quiet, undisturbed by the clamour of the Les and Changs [i.e., the people. Le and Chang are the two commonest names in China.] of the town. There, in a situation which the Son of Heaven might envy, stands the official residence of Colonel Wen. Outwardly it has all the appearance of a grandee’s palace, and within the massive boundary-walls which surround it, the courtyards, halls, grounds, summer-houses, and pavilions are not to be exceeded in grandeur and beauty. The office which had fallen to the lot of Colonel Wen was one of the most sought after in the province, and commonly only fell to officers of distinction. Though not without fame in the field, Colonel Wen’s main claim to honour lay in the high degrees he had taken in the examinations. His literary acquirements gained him friends among the civil officers of the district, and the position he occupied was altogether one of exceptional dignity.
– R.K Douglas, A Chinese Girl Graduate

Where and when do you think the events took place? What kind of atmosphere is being illustrated through the description? Do these lines help you visualize the setting? Are the lines reflective of the five senses?

One’s goal is to allow the reader to feel like the events are really happening. As a beginning writer, it might be difficult at first to establish the setting. One way to do this is to make an outline by listing down your five senses and making a sample description for each sense. Using as the first example, below is a sample outline of the senses. Take note that the example for sense of taste is taken from a different text.

  1. Sight: The yellow paint was peeling off the walls in strips and bubbles, exposing the greyish wall beneath.
  2. Smell: I felt another faint stir of air, this time from that second door, and there was the strong smell of mice.
  3. Hear: The battered, deep brown wood floors creaked as I stepped farther in.
  4. Touch: I stepped into the room and coughed at the musty, mildewy smell that felt like it was already clogging my throat.
  5. Taste: I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox… Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold. (William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just to Say”)