Fiction Writing Exercises for Developing Setting

fiction writing exercises for developing setting

Develop setting with these fiction writing exercises.

Setting is one of the most important elements in fiction writing. If your readers don’t know where the story is taking place, they’ll get lost and confused, and it will be hard for them to enjoy your tale.

Some stories have simple settings based on real places. You can use your hometown or a major city. A setting can also be completely dreamed up, which is often necessary in speculative fiction writing (Wonderland and Never Land, for example). You can keep a setting in the background, referring to it only when necessary, or you can bring it to the forefront and allow it to function as a character in your story.

Some authors go to great lengths to take the reader through a story’s setting. Just last year, I read a book in which the character drove around Los Angeles. The author took us down L.A. streets, past parks, and into real neighborhoods and establishments. It was a bit much, but I’m pretty sure if I were a resident of L.A., I would have gotten a little thrill out of the familiarity.

Today, we’ll take a deeper look at setting with a few fiction writing exercises designed to help you establish the settings in your story.


Fiction Writing Exercises: Place and Time

There are two sides to setting: place and time. If you’re writing a contemporary novel, the time in which your story is set is relatively straightforward. However, if you’re writing historical fiction, futuristic fiction, or a story that includes time travel, you’ll need to make sure readers always know what time it is.

Setting it Up

For this exercise, you will choose several settings and write short, opening descriptions that tell the reader when and where the action is taking place. Contemporary readers aren’t crazy about lengthy descriptions, so keep it simple: a couple of sentences or a short paragraph of description will suffice. Here are a few prompts to help you get started:

  • A ghost town in the wild old west.
  • A contemporary metropolis.
  • A medieval household.
  • A made-up fantasy land.
  • Aboard a vessel, such as a spaceship, in the far-off future.

Setting as Backdrop: Too Much vs. Not Enough

For this exercise, you’ll write a short scene that kicks off the story and establishes the setting. Instead of presenting a snapshot of the landscape before moving into your story, you can bring readers right into the setting by combining the setting’s description with action and by using active language rather than passive:

  • Instead of describing busy streets packed with shoppers, explain that shoppers coursed through the streets like rats in a maze.
  • You can bring characters into the setting: Kate craned her neck and spied a tiny patch of sky amidst the towering skyscrapers.  
  • In establishing time, you can simply state the date (the year was 2012) or you can place something in the setting that identifies the era: A brand new 2012 Porche sped by and Kate whirled on her heels just in time to see it disappear around the corner of Lexington.

Setting as Character

Places that have a life of their own are hugely popular. Many science fiction and fantasy stories are set in places that function as characters: the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek and Pandora from Avatar are two good examples. But cities, towns, and rural landscapes can also have personality. For example, New York has been called the fifth main character in Sex and the City. Houses, vehicles, cities, planets, nations, and rooms can all have personalities of their own.

For this exercise, write a character sketch for a place. Make a list of its traits: personality, style, attitude, class, and philosophy. Is it relaxed and laid back or dark and dangerous? Does it swallow people or lift them up? Is it friendly to newcomers or is it exclusive?

If you’re inclined, go ahead a write a scene or outline to show off your setting’s personality. Remember, however, that just because the setting is functioning as a character doesn’t mean it is the protagonist or antagonist. It can be a minor character and still be largely the backdrop (rather than forefront). Make sure you keep the focus of the story on the plot and characters.

How Do You Approach Setting?

Some writers may not think much about setting. They know exactly where their story takes place and the setting emerges naturally through the writing. But sometimes, a poorly established setting is unclear or confusing. Do you pay heed to setting? Do you work it out before you start your first draft? If you know of any other great fiction writing exercises that focus on setting, be sure to share them in the comments. And keep writing!

Are you looking for more fiction writing exercises? Pick up a copy of 101 Creative Writing Exercises, available in paperback and ebook.

101 creative writing exercises

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

5 Responses to “Fiction Writing Exercises for Developing Setting”

  1. James Wintermote says:

    For beginning writers, I think setting is probably the one detail they forget to develop the most because they are so intent on storyline and characters. The best way to help them remember about the importance of the setting is to have them remember that vision is one of our most powerful and most used senses, and this is how it should be when they are reading a story to help them visualize people and places. It also helps a reader connect to a story when they can visualize the surrounding, much like people connect to their own homes or workplaces.

    • I agree that setting is often underdeveloped, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I have read stories where the setting was simply unclear or didn’t make sense, and that is definitely not good. In other cases, a vague setting allows me to use my imagination to fill in the gaps, and that’s always good!

  2. LKWatts says:

    Setting is one thing that can be so hard to weave in and out of the storyline but your post shows it can be done.

    • Thanks! Sometimes it’s not even necessary to pay close attention to the setting. In other cases, by naturally writing the story, the setting will be obvious. It all depends on the story and the author. But I know I’ve read a few books in which the setting confused me or mesmerized me. We can do a lot with it if we choose.

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