How to add flavor to your stories: Setting

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

In the last part I was talking about mood. Let me pick up where I left off, which is: Setting. You there, guy in the Red shirt! What's your setting?

"Well it's set in just...some town, I guess - like my hometown."

Aha! So your setting is vague enough to give you the creative freedom, but familiar enough that anyone can pick up the book and you don't have to spend any time at all explaining it to them. This, however, may have a few downsides.

Firstly, it makes your work Middleground, Nowhereton number 453377842 and its another piece of Forgettable in a saturated market of them. You are going to have to work extra hard on your Characters, plot and ideas to make it stand out from the rest.

If your setting is unique in one way or another, even in a minor way, you are giving your -thing- that one extra bit of flavor that could push it over to being memorable.

Second, you are possibly robbing yourself of interesting events and interactions.

And third which is related to second: you aren't forcing yourself to think with Moods.

Sure, a bland location and vague time period gives your work an easy time being relatable to anyone but consider this.

What if the mood I am going for is abandonment, my story being about an adult orphan being unable to relate to someone they love, fearing being left.

Well, that's an interesting concept. And is perfectly viable to be set in a random town, because the focus is on the characters and their inner struggle.

But what if we set it into Crescent city, a half-abandoned Detroit like dump in the American Rust belt?

Suddenly we've set ourselves up for place FULL of opportunities of Abandonment, despair, rebuilding yourself. The place where we are will not only be affected by the people living there, but will affect them in turn.

What if there is a fire burning in the coal mines below the town, which was waxing and waning in intensity as the years go? Occasionally a sheet of white ash descends on Crescent, . If that's not a metaphore you can use at the ending to show, not tell, how the protagonist won (or failed) with his inner struggle, I don't know what is.

The bottom line is this:

A carefully-chosen setting and clear details hit the readers in the gut, getting under their skin and giving them memorable images that make the text so much more tangible and immediate.

Each mood has different methods for achieving it, whether it is sentence structure (long winding sentences of short words to describe anger) or emphasis of things you usually skip for melancholy.

For example, the key to creating sadness does not lie in the action, but rather the reaction of those affected by it.

Another thing oft forgotten, is that we don’t need to empathize with people in order to feel attached.

I can never know how someone who lost his husband might feel, because I was never married and had my spouse die.

But I can sympathize – and that is much more doable if you are able to trigger a special part of the human brain.

When we recognize injustice.

More on that in another place though.

“The trick of the switch”

Staying within one narrative mood for the entirety of anything gets not only tiresome, but it causes your chosen feeling to fall into mundanity. If you’re pouring terror at me for 3 chapters and ramping up the tension, there comes a point where I just shut off and stop feeling terrified. You see, you need to give the reader a break sometimes – whatever it is you are trying to instill.

The great trick to scenes in general and mood in particular, is to understand that the Sapiens brain is a comparative engine.

Do me a favor? Smell the air right now? Chances are it doesn't smell like anything. You can only tell the air smells, because it didn’t until you walked into the room. In roughly 20 minutes you can no longer smell anything “strange” in the air, even if the source of the smell stayed. Your brain got used to it and filtered it out so it can focus.

Same with heat. Ever boiled a frog?

And naturally so it is with mood.

Even though the reader might not notice it consciously, if you change your tone, your vocabulary, length of your words or sentences, subconsciously, they will register a difference. Maintaining it for just the right amount of time however, takes skill, practice and preferably someone to give you feedback when you go overboard.

This playing with contrast is, I find, extremely satisfying too as a creative process – you are trying to figure out how will something you’ve written make someone feel, using time travel and mind reading, if you think about it.

Hope you learned something new, or, at the very least, you got some ideas for whatever you are making. Let me know in the comments what setting stayed in your head for the longest of times? Why?



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