Last week, you got an introduction to the overall aspects of setting in literature. There were four types of setting identified that would address eight elements of setting. I will try to hit as many of the eight as I can, but like I said before, the type of setting will change the definitions of those elements and may remove some altogether. Put your world-building hat on and let’s get to work on setting!
What does the Physical Setting refer to?
Physical setting is the setting details related to the real world aspects. Think of these as what you see when you look around a certain area, or where your story takes place. The need to define these separate settings stems from their uniqueness to world-building and story crafting. If you keep in mind that the physical setting will cover everything from the cities your characters live in, to the roads they’ll travel on their journeys, then you’ll stay in the right lane.
Why is it important?
Physical setting is important because it will impact your story, your character’s action, and the obstacles that will arise beyond their inner turmoils. Often, readers flock to stories that take them to new worlds, familiar worlds, or foreign worlds to escape the one they live in. When you add in the best physical details you can, the worlds you build will become the favorites of your readers. But the physical setting also changes how you tell the story. Having an isolated city surrounded by a wall (i.e. my book Extoria) or divided cities with one sole purpose (i.e. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins) will have a different effect on the story than say an Epic Fantasy where the characters often explore many lands (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin).
What Physical Setting Details to Include?
The most important setting details are the ones that directly affect your story. If your protagonist is running through an area to hide from cops or killers, then your setting details mentioned will be different depending on their location. Is your character running from hay bell to hay bell? Or are they winding through stores, sneaking through narrow alleyways, or maybe even the classic jumping through windows into a stranger’s apartment for a moment of comedic relief?
But beyond the actions and interactions between your character and their world, physical setting details can resonate with the theme of the story, tone of the chapter, or mood of the scene. If a recent death or loss saddens your character, they’re more likely to notice the shadow in things.
Example: The darkened streets of the city surrounded me. Each lit portion of the sidewalk seemed more a promise of what hid in the shadows than a cone of safety. I didn’t know who I’d be meeting tonight, but I never thought I would stoop this far to get a job done.
Or if they’re an eternal optimist, they try to find the joy in the lives of those who are still here to enjoy it.
Example: The street lights lit each portion of the sidewalk as if in promise that I was on the right path. None flickered, and none darkened with my approach or passing. The meeting with this stranger offered a promise of surprise, as did each crack in the concrete in the darkness. So long as I tread carefully, I would make this sacrifice of dignity to save those I loved.
Time of Year/Day:
Does your story happen over multiple seasons? Or just one? This becomes important when the weather changes and thus changes the physical landscape, whether rain turns dirt to mud, or snow blankets a mountainside to make it impassable.
Geography vs Man-Made:
The natural world vs humankind is a battle that’s raged since the first homo-sapiens began their journey. The physical setting that created many of the favorite classic stories worked off of surviving the natural world in forests, mountains, deserts, and swamps. Meanwhile, modern stories face issues of what having such a large population does to the geography of the world, how structures impact every level of society, and how we react to new and old structures. Using these physical details will help convey the possibilities and expectations of the world you’re building.
When you’re looking at the mood/atmosphere aspects of physical setting, then it’s important to look at the descriptive words you use. Look at these examples below and let me know if you agree or disagree.
Example 1: The cavern hid behind a veil of darkness with only its clawed stalagmites and stalactites to act as its teeth, pulling us further into the task set ahead.
Example 2: The further we delved into the cave, the more elaborate and intricate the stalactites and stalagmites grew from floor and ceiling, a welcome sight after a long journey up the mountainside.
The first example gives a more threatening atmosphere, and the POV character isn’t looking forward to the continued journey. While the veil of darkness is cliche, it works for this example. You can freshen up this language, but it conveys the sense of hidden dangers. Clawed is an example of using an attribute most see as menacing to convey the menacing atmosphere of the cave.
The second example shows the same cave but through another’s eyes. This could be from the same story, or from a different time, but the mood/atmosphere offers a sense of discovery. By the POV character’s willingness to see the rock formations as elaborate and intricate, gain a mood of appreciation and an atmosphere of wonder.
Your physical setting is more than describing the trees, the birds, and the bees. Use your physical setting to determine the tone, potential obstacles, and metaphorical meanings behind each element. Remember that describing every detail like a camera panning the area isn’t always required. Choose the key elements to bring up in each scene and don’t forget the perspective example above.
Using physical setting can work double duty as well. First, you can use your physical setting to build characterization. Each character will notice different things, even if your narrator is a third person omniscient. Second, you can use your physical setting for world-building. When you’re using various races, species, and genders, you can use the references to what physical settings these people inhabit to show what traits readers can expect from them.
Physical setting is a large part of any story, so find the right balance, and use it to tell your best story each time. Thank you for reading. And as always, keep writing, keep learning, and stay fresh, my nugs!
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