Setting the scene: 5 ways to introduce place in stories

Setting the scene: 5 ways to introduce place in stories

Setting the scene for a story or ‘scene-setting’ is important. Giving readers a vivid sense of where and when events take place anchors readers in your story’s world, making it feel real and vivid. Read 5 ways to set the scene (with examples by accomplished authors):

What is scene-setting?

The term comes from the world of the stage, where stagehands put up the set for the play to evoke place and atmosphere and the ways they change over the course of the play.

Now we use the term broadly to refer to ‘the action or practice of setting the scene’ (Oxford English Dictionary). In other words, giving essential and/or interesting information to anchor unfolding events in time and place.

Here are effective ways to introduce elements of setting:

1. Give readers a sense of scale

In her mesmerizing short story ‘Runaway’, Alice Munro begins the story with simple details of place (and character):

Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill.

Alice Munro, ‘Runaway’, p. 3. Runaway, 2004

This scene-setting communicates the scale of where the story takes place – a small mobile home park. The words ‘…the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill’ tell us a lot. They suggest a quaint, small place. A rise in the road is taken for a hill. ‘Around here’ and ‘they’ also suggest that Carla isn’t from the area, originally.

We learn that Carla and her partner live in a mobile home in the woods, where they keep horses and earn a living by giving tourists trail rides.

The story shows the ways relationships can stifle people at times, how one or the other party sometimes wants to escape (and may attempt to do so). And also how people embellish the truth. So the scene-setting suggesting differences in perception of place between people fits the story’s development.

Outline your story’s core setting and profile individual story locations using the World Builder in the Now Novel dashboard

2. Show what is surprising or strange

Munro’s scene-setting is subtle. It seems prosaic, but there are more layers of thematic relevance to the setting description than first meets the eye.

Opening with what is immediately fascinating or strange about a setting is also effective, however. You can evoke strangeness, unfamiliarity, mystery, fear or excitement right away, too.

Example of estranging scene-setting

Take, for example, David Mitchell’s scene-setting near the start of his novel Number9dream, about a boy’s search for his father in Tokyo:

PanOpticon’s lobby – cavernous as the belly of a stone whale – swallows me whole. Arrows in the floorpads sense my feet, and guide me to a vacant reception booth. A door hisses shut behind me, sealing subterranean blackness.

David Mitchell, Number9Dream, p. 6. 2001.

Here, Eiji Miyake, the protagonist, describes the lobby of a building he visits in search of his father. Mitchell uses the poetic device simile, comparing the lobby to a whale’s belly, to make the place seem vast and prison-like. Like The Whale swallowing Jonah, the lobby swallows Eiji whole and plunges him into darkness. (The ‘PanOpticon’ is also the name for a famous jail concept in which a warden could see into every cell from a central observation tower, creating the feeling of being watched at all times.)

Mitchell extends these images of the setting as a strange, almost living being in the futuristic feet-sensing floorpads and automatic hissing doors.

Mitchell’s scene-setting effectively evokes a place that makes the character feel disempowered – Eiji is at the mercy of clinical, automated urban space.

3. Give the emotional qualities of place

Good scene-setting can quickly establish the tone and emotion of your story or chapter. It may introduce an undertone of the tragic, cheerful, nostalgic, or another emotion. Take, for example, the sorrowful sense of place in the opening chapter of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved: 

Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color. Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinatti horizon for life’s principal joy was reckless indeed.

Toni Morrison, Beloved, p. 4. 1987

To create scene-setting that builds affect (emotional tone or quality) like this, show:

  • Elements of the setting a character feels strongly about
  • Elements of setting that suggest its inhabitants’ hope or despair, celebration or mourning – use concrete images to convey abstract feelings

4. Give immersive details

Instead of the broad sweep of what a Cincinnati winter is like (as in the Morrison example above), you may want to set your scene in minute, intriguing detail to start. Take, for example, the opening to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

The story follows the lives of a family of missionaries from the US in the colonial times of the Belgian-occupied Congo. It opens with scene-setting that evokes the intensity of a strange wilderness to western eyes:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, p. 5. 1998.

In a rare ‘breaking the fourth wall’ moment addressing the reader directly, the mother of the family describes the forest. The rich details evoke a sense of the natural wonder and unfamiliarity of place to the Price family’s eyes.

This type of scene-setting unfolds slower than the kind in David Mitchell’s example, where we are launched straight into a character’s more urgent mission. Both kinds have their value and help to create immersion in a story’s world.

5. Establish time period or time-frame

Time is also a key aspect of setting. Time period, the era or epoch in which a story is set, contributes many interesting constraints and details. For example, whether or not women had the vote yet. Or what people wear. What medical treatment entails. Time frame refers to the duration the story spans (a few hours, weeks, years, decades).

When setting the scene, giving your reader a sense of time gives context, even if physical details only come later. Mixing both of these elements – the details of where and when – is effective. Read this example:

In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.

E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime, p.3. 1974.

This simple scene-setting opening the first chapter gives a clear idea of when Doctorow’s historical story is set – in early 1900s, pre-War North America. Simple details of the year and the the home’s architecture are all it takes Doctorow to establish a sense of time period, and the year date gives us a specific time-frame for the start of the family’s story.

As you can see from the examples above, there are many ways to set the scene for a story. Each has its own merits. Play and experiment with different options, to find an introduction to your setting that feels fitting for your subject matter or themes.

Develop, summarize and organize your story’s settings and outline settings, characters, scenes and chapters using Now Novel’s story dashboard.

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