Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/21/2022

Episode 10: A Word About Setting

By Sara H. Sterling

Originally published in the January 1916 issue of The Writer’s Monthly

Every writer knows that there are three things necessary to every good short-story as to every good novel: Plot, Characters, and Setting. It matters not how interesting your characters, how full of atmosphere your setting, if your short-story lacks a plot, it is a short-story only in name, or in your opinion of it. You may have a most spirited plot, but if your characters are mere puppets, with the strings that move them very obvious, still you have not a real short-story. Lastly, you may have both a stirring plot and characters that seem actual flesh and blood, but if your setting, no matter how lightly sketched, is false or unconvincing, your public, if you ever reach it, will feel that something is lacking in your short-story, even though they may not be able to define wherein that lack consists.

Of these, setting seems to be the most difficult for a young writer to make effective. Nine times out of ten, the reason is that he has not a clearly defined idea as to what setting means. Asked by way of an exercise to outline a setting, he may write something like this:

“The shop was dark and low-ceiled. Clocks, ticking busily, stood on the shelves that lined the walls, and watches of many kinds rested in the glass cases upon the counter. An old man with a long gray beard sat near the door.”

Now, this is setting, after a fashion; but when you have finished the paragraph, have you in your mind’s eye a clear picture, or merely a somewhat confused mass of details? Here is the real test of an effective setting: Does the reader get a distinct mental image of the place you describe? Remember, you must yourself have that picture vividly in your mind’s eye before you can make it live for him.

Let us take the paragraph just given, and see whether he can make it somewhat better.

“As Richard entered the clock shop out of the bright sunshine, twilight seemed suddenly to descend upon him. Shadowy, ghostly figures haunted the gloom, ranged in menacing rows upon the shelves around him. They seemed to mock or warn, in their monotonous ticking voices. Fainter voices, too, echoes as it were of the stronger ones, came from the glass cases on the counter. And who but the guardian spirit of the place—old Father Time himself, he seemed— sat near the door as ready to challenge.”

Comparing these two versions, you will see first of all that no new detail has been added, though a character has been introduced, and the setting described from his point of view—always an effective method, although by no means absolutely necessary. We have used figures of speech to give vividness; and we have tried to create atmosphere rather than give merely a list of details. In other words, we have sketched a picture, not made a catalogue.

This illustration is, of course, a very brief and simple example of the point in question. Study Cynthia Stockley’s stories, and note the unmistakable African atmosphere. Go to Kipling, naturally, for India; to Jacobs for the English sea coast town. Come nearer home, and read Mary E. Wilkins for New England, Thomas Nelson Page for Virginia, or any one of the numerous writers who have drawn so successfully for us the many and varied aspects of our great country. Read them critically; not only feel their effects, but see how they do it. And, here as elsewhere, note always that suggestion, although more difficult, is always a finer method than detail.

You may or may not agree with the example provided, but the point stands - setting is not just about accurately describing the physical nature of a time and place, it is also about instilling a feeling in the reader. And if you give a reader a feeling, he or she will imagine up plenty of their own details.