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ServiceScape Incorporated

Choosing a Short Story Setting that Matters

Mississippi native, Eudora Welty, was one of the most influential American short story writers of our times. She held this title because she understood the absolute and primary importance of setting within the genre. She said, Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else... Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?...

The importance of setting is often overlooked by amateur writers who delve so deeply into characterization that they forget to acknowledge the setting as one of the most necessary characters of them all. For this reason, the setting should be relevant and familiar to the author—a place he or she knows well and a place that can be described in detail to bring the reader there. The typical word count of short stories does not allow for the same extent of characterization that can be used in novels, so setting must add the additional layer. Who the characters are will inevitably be molded by the setting of the short story.

What is included in setting?

Setting is more than just place or geographical location. It also includes time period, time of year, and time of the day, as well as the temperature and weather conditions on that day. Beyond this, it includes the social conditions of the characters—the local color, mannerisms, customs, speech patterns and dialects. All of these added together are the framework of setting and all are important to allow your reader to understand the characters you have created.

Since short stories are limited in their words, the tactics you use for creating setting and atmosphere should be chosen wisely. For example, while using the five senses is important (what the character is touching, hearing, seeing, etc.), you must still move the plot forward at a steady pace to reach the resolution within a lowered word count limit. What this means is you can't get lost in sensory detail, although it is important; your setting needs to pervade the story but not overpower it.

Setting and context

Setting creates the context within which your characters will change and develop. Think of it this way: In real life, a person's context creates them. Their history, their economic situation, and their cultural background all play an integral role in shaping that person into who they are. The same is true for fictional characters. You must consider a character's context to understand them in depth and the setting creates much of that context for them. It is therefore an incredibly useful part of plot for a writer and much can be accomplished within the creation of it.

The impact of setting

As mentioned above, the impact of setting in fiction works much the same way as the impact of setting in real life. How a character sees or interprets the scenes around him or her (and thereby, the setting) will tell the reader much about that character. Is the character moved by the setting? Is the character afraid of the setting? Is the character attempting to escape the setting? All of these considerations will create a three-dimensional depth to your characters that would otherwise be absent if not for the revelations that the setting (and the character's reaction to it) provides.

Author's goals in creating setting

So what should be the author's goals in creating a short story setting that does what it is supposed to do?

  1. Think about what elements of setting are essential to the story. If a character needs to view something in order to have a particular reaction, make sure you've created the space from which they can view it. If a landmark is a necessary element of the story, describe it in detail. Consider all of the thematic approaches that you wish to use and then think about how setting can relate them.
  2. Think about what is needed for characterization. Do you need to show a particular character's attachment to his or her family through photos on the wall? Can you use objects to show a character's lack of responsibility instead of simply stating that he or she is irresponsible? Is the character poor, rich or middle class, and what possessions can they have to denote this?
  3. Think about the backstory you need to tell. What parts of your setting have been influenced by earlier events? What is the name of the street or town, and what previous events does that name suggest? What does a character have in his or her possession that tells us something about their past without overtly stating it? What does the character reveal through conversation about where he or she has been and where he or she is going?
  4. Think about how to reveal time, place and culture. The objects in the room or surrounding a character reveal the time period in which he or she is living. Street names or famous landmarks reveal location. Artifacts and symbols reveal the culture associated with the story and the characters within it. All of these elements of plot should be shown rather than told.

Only through careful consideration of all that your setting should reveal are you able to use setting the way it is meant to be used in writing a short story. Since the short story has such an abbreviated time to reveal a lot of information, using setting to say more than what's written is not only important—it's necessary.

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