Writing Corner: Setting

Setting

The place and the time when the story happens

When we think of setting, we often think of the place where a story happens, but there are actually two parts to setting: the place where it happens and the time when it happens, meaning if the story takes place in the past, the present, the future, or some other time.

The Place

When it comes to the place where your story happens, it is only up to your imagination. It can be in a normal place, like at home or school, or an unusual place like a castle or a submarine or something totally strange, like inside a cell in your body or on the back of a turtle flying through space.

There are no real rules in writing, but there is one almost-rule about the setting. If you put your story somewhere unusual, there should be a reason for it. If you have a story that takes place inside the sun but it’s just about boys and girls going to school, why is it inside the sun? If it could be in a normal place without changing the story, it is best to put it in the normal place. However, it is easy to make the setting matter. Maybe the school inside the sun is for sunbeams that are learning how to shine and getting ready to go out into space to see what they will bring light to. In that case, it is very important that it is inside the sun.

Some examples of the setting in books:

Where the Wild Things Are: Max’s bedroom, then the Land of the Wild Things

Charlotte’s Web: the barn, but later at the State fair

Lord of the Flies: on a deserted tropical island

The Time

There are four general times when a story can happen. I am going to call these present, past, future, and fantasy.

Present Stories

If there is no specific time mentioned in a story, we assume it is now, meaning the now when the story was written (as I write this, now is March 28, 2021). This is important for things like technology, fashions, current events, etc.

This is the easiest kind of story to write since you can just look around and see what things are like now and put that in your story, so it is easy to make it realistic. If there is not a special reason to have a story in a different time, you should write stories in the present.

Past Stories

A lot of stories that we think of as past tense stories were actually written as present tense stories but that was in the past. An examples is Little Women. This takes place in 1868, but this is because that was when it was written, meaning when it was written it was a now story.

What I am talking about is writing a story that happens sometime in the past: 10 years ago or a million years ago or any other time. The tricky thing about writing stories in the past is making the things in your story match the technology, fashion, current events, etc. of that time. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but if you wrote a story that happened in 1850 but everyone was using cellphones, it would seem strange (unless there was a good reason, like time travel). This takes some research and knowing about history.

Examples:

Johnny Tremain: this takes place in 1773 and includes real historical events from the American Revolution

A Single Shard: this takes places in Korea a long time ago.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry: this takes place in the 1930s in the south of the US.

For all of these stories, they have to be in the past for the story to happen: it would not have happened in a different time (like today).

Future Stories

For stories in the future, it is a lot easier. We can guess what things will be like in 5 years (although we don’t know), but we have no idea what they will be in 500 years. This means you can make up anything you want. Of course this takes a lot of imagination since although we don’t know what the world will be like in 500 years, we can be sure it will be very different from today.

Examples:

Divergent: this is a post-apocalyptic story, so it happens sometime in the future after our current society has been destroyed. We can see this by a mixture of high technology (e.g. computers) and low technology (e.g. knives).

Ender’s Game: we don’t know when in the future this is, but we know it is future because they have space stations and have met aliens.

The Wild Robot: this is a future story since it is about a robot that lives on an island. We have robots today but not any that are this developed. 

Fantasy Stories

Fantasy stories don’t take place in our world so they don’t have to follow our history. However, you as the writer should know all the things you had to know for the past stories (e.g. what is their technology level?)

Examples:

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: this is half a fantasy, since after starting in 1940, the characters go to Narnia, which is a different world. The time there is similar to our world in the Middle Ages since there are castles and people have swords and bows and arrows.

The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights): This is considered a steampunk story (see next week when I talk about genre), so it is equal to taking place around the 1800s in our history, although with some other things in the story to make it a fantasy, like magic and daemons.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this one starts in the real world in about 1900 (when it was written) and then goes to a fantasy world. In Oz, there is magic but also low technology, like swords and spears.

Do I need to tell the place and time in my story?

A longer story will probably happen in many places, so it is always important to let the reader know when the place is changing. This is usually easy to do. For instance, if you wrote: “When Anne got to school, there was no one there” then the place is clearly the school. We can just let the reader know in the action whenever the place changes.

With short stories, the place might not be that important but it is good to let the reader know, just because it helps them to picture what is happening. Let me give you an example:

          “Where were you last night?” Jessica asked. She picked up her coffee and took a sip. “I woke up 3:00am and you weren’t there.

         “There was a job,” Harry said. “It was a bit messy and went long.”

We can make some guesses where this is happening. They are talking about last night, so it is probably morning. Jessica is drinking coffee, but we don’t know if it’s in a kitchen or cafeteria or in an office. However, if we add a sentence at the beginning it helps to give the reader a clear picture of the scene. Think of it like a movie where they show a wide shot of the place right before the action starts.

         Jessica was sitting at their regular table at the Happy Diner when Harry arrived.

          “Where were you last night?” Jessica asked. She picked up her coffee and took a sip. “I woke up 3:00am and you weren’t there.

         “There was a job,” Harry said. “It was a bit messy and went late.”

Just having one sentence at the beginning helps us to see the scene a lot clearer and we can picture a restaurant with the two people sitting at a table.

For time, as I said before, if it is not mentioned, we assume it is now. For past stories giving the year is a good way to give the reader an idea when it is, although we can also give clues. If everyone is riding horses and using swords that gives us some idea of when it might be (although people did that for thousands of years).

For future stories, if you mention things like space stations or robots that we don’t have now, people can understand that it is in the future. You can give a year if you want people to know how far in the future it is but you don’t have to.

For fantasy stories, we can’t give a date since it is a different time from ours. The reader will just get an idea based on the clues you give them, so it is important that you know what the world is like. You don’t have to know everything but enough for the story. I will talk about this more in a later Writing Corner.

Now it’s your turn

  1. When you read a story or watch a TV show or movie, think about if it is a story that happens in the present, past or future, or if it a fantasy story that is a totally different time from our world.
  2. Does the story take place in more than one place? This is easy to see in a movie or TV show but how do you know in a story when they change places.
  3. Look at a story you have written and think about the place and time where it happens. How would the story be different if it were in a different place or time?

If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at greenwalledtreehouse@gmail.com.

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