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Creating Story World (setting) in Literary Fiction

by William H. Coles

A literary fiction writer orients a reader as to where and when the action takes place by the setting (story world). Well-constructed purposeful settings evoke images, establish mood, and can supplement characters’ motivations and feelings in the moment. 

In essence, with the start of every new scene  (if not carried over from previous scenes), the author establishes where, when, who, what, even in stream-of-consciousness or backstory reflection.

In great literary stories, something  happens. Life is a progression of thoughts, heartbeats, and physical movement and stories progress through time and often move through locations. Characters pop in and out. In contrast, essays are static. And memoir is life lived with no opportunities for an author to imaginatively create characters and what happens to those that live in stories. Imaginative creation of setting promotes story purpose, theme,  meaning, and stimulates images, a sense of continuous action, and thought . . . and enhances storytelling.


Attribution of dialogue to characters can provide well-paced and effective setting particulars:


1. “I won’t do it,” she said signaling the waiter for a check.
(This attribution provides details in addition to who’s speaking, both direct and  subconscious information: in a restaurant, finished eating, speaker able to see (waiter), able to signal (not impaired), able to speak.)

2. “Let us all rise to the occasion,” he said gripping the edges of the podium and sweeping his gaze deliberately over the audience.
(Here images are stimulated in attribution–podium, gripping edges, sweep of gaze, the intensity of gaze–but also there is a sense of urgency added to the words actually spoken. But be cautious. Depending on the context before and after, this attribution might have too many redundant or unnecessary words. Attributions can be overdone so always weigh effectiveness, pace, and consistency with the prose style established.)

Settings differ with a point of view change of character or narrator. So to be effective, in any scene in any story, a reader should be aware of the point of view and how that specific character perceives the story world from that point of view and, in addition, know a change in distance of the point of view or a passage of time. EXAMPLE: time passage in narrative. “The ice cream melted.” Using imagery and action can often be more effective than: “Three minutes passed.”  The idea is to signal passage of time and momentum with the stroke of a small detail.

In literature, story environment is transferred through language, not vision or hearing. Authors are not illustrators or actors, they create images with well-chosen words and imaginative diction. Imagine a scene as scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The writer stimulates an image with selected effective puzzle pieces. And many readers, from their own worldview and experience, fill in mentally with missing pieces to complete the scene. Fewer details are needed if individual pieces of the puzzle are maximally effective in stimulating reader to create the whole image. The “puzzle piece” is best when concrete (paper clip), not abstract (fastener). The word choice should be image-generating (cracked porcelain tea cup, or, the blue and yellow scattered pieces of the shattered decorated Easter egg). Modifiers are usually more effective in setting when not judgmental (e.g. rather than huge, which is a judgement, better to say six feet tall for accuracy–but only if it fits). Avoid clichés. Use nouns and adjectives that evoke images in a few words–fifty-story skyscraper, not tall building. Once you instinctively incorporate the right pieces of the puzzle in mind, you can then  deliver them seamlessly. And brevity results from the quality of puzzle pieces chosen.

Brevity in-scene building is best. Long descriptive passages are for past generations. Find clever ways to use your puzzle pieces in dialogue attribution, internal reflections, narrative, back story. Be sure to use fresh and exciting image fragments, especially in narrative.

Principle 1 (occasional exceptions)

Keep your settings alive with momentum: whenever possible change 1) abstract to concrete images,  2)  passive (and past perfect) to active constructions.



Passive/past constructions

The weather was unpleasant. It was raining. The grey sky reflected from the wet street surface. The side street was rarely used by automobiles and ice would soon form on the sidewalk and the metal lampposts with gas burners that had to be lit each evening by a bent old man who had never failed in his duty for decades.


The old lamplighter painfully climbed his step stool to hold his quivering flame to the cast-iron gas streetlamp. The light rain would turn to ice. Pedestrians might fall. Cars skid. But in forty-eight years of evening service to the City of Charleston, he never failed his daily duty to protect.

Principle 2

Avoid excessive description that is almost always static. For clarification of static, compare these EXAMPLES:

Example A is static.
The small black bird with the brilliant red wings and inquisitive yellow eyes perched on the white picket fence just out of reach of the tabby colored cat with a scar on his leg and his one eye half-closed and scarred from some long ago fight.

Example B is active.
The red winged blackbird glided in for a landing, and the battle-tested tabby cat leaped up, claws out, and caught only the edge of one of the bird’s wings to scratch a brilliant red feather loose that floated down to the garden path as the bird safely landed on the fence a few feet away.

Bland adjectives and adverbs, or extended, vague metaphorical comparisons deaden desired effect; use action verbs and nouns that provoke images.

The predominate modes of writing literary fiction–diction, character, narration (POV), plot, image–change with each specific story and writer. The predominant mode for a story may require adjustment of setting detail for best effect and an author will need to prioritize specific detail appropriately.

Here are examples of setting with detail embedded in scene action. First, with ineffective subjective abstractions: The place was a mess and she was cleaning up with little enthusiasm and carelessly waved things around frustrated she had to do the work. Second, with more concrete, objective writing: A clutter of clothes on the floor and dirty dishes in the sink had to be cleaned up with her boy friend Baylor coming to visit. She hated cleaning; she kicked scattered trash into a pile with little enthusiasm, frustrated by a forced sense to impress when she really thought Baylor was not worthy of her effort.


Note (1) how details are used in the three different scenes below and (2) the use of sensory detail (hot, nude, stove, sink, blotch, etc.).

1. Dialogue predominating with enhanced setting.

“You’re pissing me off,” I said looking at my watch. We couldn’t make the movie if we’d left fifteen minutes ago.

“I’m trying,” she whined.

I softened a little. She did try all the time. She was just slow and stupid.

“I wish you loved me,” she said picking up a saucepan with coffee she’d reheated for me and moving toward the dishwasher. I reached to help but she jerked pan away, not in the mood to be pampered. Hot liquid spattered on her bare legs. She screamed with pain.

“Goddamn it,” she said. Red blotches blossomed on her thigh.

“It wasn’t my fault,” I said not moving, refusing to help.

“I wish you were dead.”

2. Narrative first person description with setting details.

I was in the kitchen of my girlfriend Ellie’s house watching her load the dishwasher between the four-burner stove and the porcelain sink. We were already late for the movie. She’d picked up a saucepan she’d used to heat instant coffee and spilled hot water on her.

“Damn it,” she screamed. She wasn’t wearing any clothes and a red splotch developed on her leg.

3. Narrator writing in scene from narrator POV.

Ellie heated left over coffee to boiling in a saucepan. Jake stood behind her fidgeting.

“I don’t want coffee now,” Jake said. “We’ll never make the movie.”

“I can’t ever please you,”  she said. She grabbed the handle to empty the pan in the sink.

“Leave it, “ Luke said. He reached to take it from her but she turned away unwilling to be pushed. His hand hit her arm and hot liquid spilled on her naked belly, ran down her exposed thigh; the skin turned red, ready to blister.

“I hate you,” she screamed.

“I’ll go by myself,” he said ignoring her moan as she slumped to the linoleum floor.


Here are two famous story openings that set the stage for the reader effectively. First, “Barn Burning “ by William Faulkner. Note Faulkner’s provision of setting is in scene with sensory detail and more than one point of view (narrator and boy).

1. Faulkner example

“The store in which the justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet: ” 

2. Melville example. Moby Dick. In Melville’s novel opening, the narrator describes at a distance with an imperative, 2nd person tone, the use of poetic language (image provoking words and tight effective metaphors at their best), and detail incorporated in expression of emotions and mood (with lots of energy in the language). The style may seem archaic, but don’t miss the value of the writing techniques.

“There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?”


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