setting / writing

Setting is Not a Place, it’s an Emotion

To new writers, setting is passive, to place the reader geographically. A few prosy sentences and move on. To experienced writers, it’s seminal to the plot, an extension of the characters. Here’s what how-to-write books say:

“Setting is an important element of literature because authors use it to establish the atmosphere or mood of the piece.” (Writing from A to Z )

“Don’t tell us what it’s like. … Let us come to our own conclusions. Is it scary? Imposing? Barren? Evoke the mood by the description, not be telling us…” (Noah Lukeman)

“Setting can help to portray a swirl of emotion… When a reader senses that setting is being used to reveal something important, there is no danger of its being what one student calls ‘the stuff you skip’.” (Janet Burroway)

They all agree setting isn’t intended to objectively describe a location, rather to buttress plot and characters.

Close your eyes and describe the scent of the flower bed that borders a scraggly front lawn, the dreary London day, the sound of the subway. Each of those images mean little outside of the reader’s experience, connections to other parts of the story, and motivations. The flower bed tells us the person living inside the shack hasn’t given up. The dreary London day juxtaposes the character’s mood. The subway sound means new beginnings, hope. Readers don’t care a lot about the setting except as it affects the story. (I stipulate James Michener is an exception, as are nature writers).

Let’s try an experiment. The setting is a park. What do you see (don’t peek)?

Most readers expect this:



…but the description that follows, through the eyes of the main character,  says this:

Its a tree in red

The first is no surprise. The second informs us about the state of mind, the experiences, the temperament of the character. S/he completely misses the beauty inherent in the trees and nature, thanks to a raging thirst that makes everything look deadly.

Another example–think of the Country Western song. The lyrics are often tragic, about loss and failure, but the feeling evoked by music is upbeat–man’s ability to overcome, to get up despite being knocked down again and again, to find happiness against all odds.

That’s how to write a scene. It’s not what the room looks like, it’s what happens there that matters.

For more about settings, check out Jurgen Wolff’s blog here.

More on settings:

Writers Tips #82: 7 Tips on Time and Place from Donald Maass

How to Describe a Character’s Neighborhood

How to Describe a Landscape

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. 

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23 thoughts on “Setting is Not a Place, it’s an Emotion

  1. Pingback: How to Write About Love | WordDreams...

  2. I love when your subconscious does the work and you realize it later. When my characters went to the desert fort they were really going into a desert experience. Once I realized it then I could play with it. Writing is so much fun!


  3. I do believe you’ve found what I’ve been doing wrong. I’ve been “showing” settings by having a character do something within it — ‘She took the five steps to the refrigerator.’ This is okay, I guess, but I still haven’t put any emotion into it. For example: “She found the cramped kitchen closing in on her as she took the five steps to the refrigerator.”

    Can I assume that most everything in a fictional novel needs emotion attached?


  4. Like INKPOSTS, I too have bookmark this one, Jacqui! BTW, I’m back to my story-writing [yiipppeee!!!]. I’m using one of Donald Maass’ texts–“Writing the Breakout Novel”.


  5. “Don’t tell us what it’s like. … Let us come to our own conclusions.” This is something I need to remember every day. I fail at this sometimes when describing a character’s emotion. It is too easy to write “She was really angry at him and left,” rather than, “Her brow furrowed and her glare shot daggers through his core. As she left the room she slammed the door behind her.” I’m always working on it. Thanks for this post – great reminders.


  6. Great as usual Jacqui. The emotional component is so vital to how we create a setting and the actions of our characters. And not only in terms of the characters on the page, but the emotions we invoke in the reader when we transport them to that setting.


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