Setting the Setting

By Jeffrey Pillow on September 17, 2013 — 2 mins read

Stories do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in a time and a place. That time and place is known as the setting, one of the five key elements of fiction writing:

  1. Character
  2. Plot
  3. Theme
  4. Setting
  5. Style

Not to get caught up in technical definitions but the term setting carries a basic tone. Perhaps the more modern phrase story world is appropriate.

A reader of fiction wants to be inside the point-of-view (POV) character, seeing the world through his or her eyes. To see that world, first you have to create it.

Creating a Story World

A novel is a vast undertaking. Your story world is just as big, if not bigger. Whether real or imagined, or some combination of the two, if you plan to keep the attention of your reader for 200 or 300 pages, you better place him in a location he wants to stay until the very last page. That doesn’t mean your setting has to be some exotic paradise with coconuts and half clad women. Far from it. It simply means your reader needs to feel like an integral part of whatever setting you create by the time he or she makes it to page 10. Otherwise, they might not make it to page 11.

To illustrate the necessary components for the creation of a story world, I am going to use the town where I was raised: Phenix, Virginia. I can say with certainty that most people reading this blog have never been to, much less heard of, Phenix without the -o. My point in using Phenix as an example is simple. There isn’t much to Phenix — on the surface. Roughly 105 people live here.[ref]Yes, I am discounting the figure provided by the latest 2010 census as 226 because that takes into account people who live in neighboring locales outside of Phenix and not within the town limits.[/ref]

There is one store which closes at noon on Saturday and isn’t open at all on Sunday. You walk in smelling like Dove soap and you walk out smelling like bacon grease and eggs. Someone traveling might think Phenix is bland or not even notice they just passed through it, never noticing the long, lean black male with a gray, scraggly beard waving at them as if they attend the same church. Blink and it’s gone. All 1.1 square miles of it.

But behind the closed doors of a mechanic’s shop that hasn’t been open for fifteen years or inside the home of a seventy-eight year old widow lives a story.

“Everyone has a story,” as the foreman in the construction business where I once worked used to say.


Even that man waving no one seemed to notice.

Up Next: What Setting Is


Posted in: Writing