Setting Your Scene

According to The Harper Handbook to Literature, setting is “the time and place of a story; its locale. In a broader sense, setting includes also such elements as the moral, intellectual and social milieu or the ethos in which the characters move.” (p.430)

What that actually means is that it is used to paint in the background of your story; it tells us when and where the tale takes place. Imagine that your words are like the lines of a sketch, each line takes you a step closer to the complete picture. By describing the place where the story is happening you can prepare your reader for what is to come. For example, describing a dark, gloomy secluded place can be a sign that we are about to encounter something untoward or evil.

The setting is one of the most important elements of any story. It serves as a useful guide for you to tell your readers three things. One: When the story is happening. Two: Where it is happening. Three: What the characters are doing. Doing these three things helps to create a vivid mental image for the reader and goes a great way to helping them connect with your story. Think of it like this: What would an evening in Gryffindor Tower be like without those cosy fireside chairs, that roaring grate, or the sound of Exploding Snap in the background? Removal of these more tangible things would dramatically alter the atmosphere of the common room that we know and love.

A successful story manages to strike the balance between setting and character description. How much you need to include of either really depends on what is central to your story. If it’s about Harry’s search for the Horcruxes then you might want to go into detail about the different places he comes across on his travels and if it’s a tale focusing on Mary-Sue’s first trip to Hogwarts then you’ll want to tell us about her long flowing locks instead. The main difference can be seen in the two paragraphs below; the first is a setting description, the second is more character focused. (These two paragraphs are entirely my own so please don’t plagiarize me.)

Setting:

All was quiet on the little street that was Privet Drive; it was only nine-thirty on the hot summer night. For once it wasn’t the unbearable heat that kept the residents indoors, it was the fierce rain. Britain was in the grip of a freak torrent of rain showers that were unforgiving in their relentless attack. Dense fogy clouds circled up above, shedding their load on anything and everything below them in an attempt to drown any sense of summer spirit that may have been building. The little prim and proper box houses that covered most of Little Whinging were cowering in terror from the existential downpour. This weather was somewhat of a relief for them because sunshine in Surrey usually brought drought and hosepipe bans that parched the vibrant, green grass until it was a horrible, dull yellow. The heavy droplets of water bounced up off the stone chipped tarmac of the pavement before exploding into half a dozen tiny drops that then plummeted back towards the ground and slithered their way across the black asphalt. Every surface was now coated in a thin film of the translucent fluid, a car creeping its way along the street made a soft crackling noise as it peeled water away from the road and flicked it away again. Diminutive narrow rivers were flowing along the gutters that lined the two-way thoroughfare; the water was now a muddy shade of brown after having mixed with the dirt that had previously layered the road surface.

Character:

There was a crescent moon high up in the inky sky and it was an almost cloudless night. There was no wind to speak of and the only sounds that could be heard were the distant ramblings of the party back up at the house and the gentle lapping noise of the calm sea licking the sandy shore that was barely twenty feet away from them. The silence that filled the air between them was tense and panicky, Harry could feel the nerves rising up into his throat, he wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take before he just threw himself at Ginny’s feet and begged to be forgiven for his stupidity. “Gabrielle seems quite taken with you,” the flame haired bridesmaid finally said after a long time. There wasn’t an ounce of humour in her voice and she sounded upset rather than angry.

“She can be as taken with me as she wants; I’m not interested.” The butterflies were doing somersaults in Harry’s stomach, the twinkling quality of light from the stars only made her look more striking than she had during the day.

“She’s a pretty girl.” Ginny couldn’t bear to look at him, so instead she gazed across the moonlit bay. She examined the moon’s watery reflection in the sea as the ripples distorted it slightly. If she looked really carefully she could see a shoal of tiny fish shimmering just beneath the surface of the water.

Either of the above passages is fine, they just have draw attention to different things. The choice between them is entirely your own and depends upon your own story.

Adding the setting into your chapter isn’t anywhere as problematic as it sounds. Every time the word ‘said’ is used there is room for expansion. To demonstrate this we can use one of JKR’s very own scenes from OotP. This first segment shows what it sounds like without setting:

“Morning, all,” Ron said. “What’ve you got there, Harry?” he asked.

“A list of things that need to be found out before we get things moving,” Harry answered.

“It looks like a long list,” Ron sighed.

“It is, but we’ve got some time,” Harry replied.

The second segment shows what the passage sounds like with the setting included:

“Morning, all,” Ron said quietly as he stretched, yawned and flopped himself heavily down on the couch that was directly in front of the fire. “What’ve you got there, Harry?” he asked tiredly as he gave Hermione a concerned look. She was staring into the empty fireplace with deep sadness.

“A list of things that need to be found out before we get things moving,” Harry answered. He was running his quill down the page again to see if there was anything that he had missed.

“It looks like a long list.” Ron raised his eyebrows; research wasn’t his favourite thing but he had accepted that it was going to be a necessary part of this task.

“It is, but we’ve got some time,” Harry assured his best friend.

The two scenes have an identical plot line but there is a vast difference. Your readers have a blank canvas— paint something beautiful for them. Here’s a comprehensive chart to further exemplify the impact setting can have:

With Setting and Detail

Hermione stomped toward the oak table where Harry and Ron were labouring away at their Divination homework. "I can't believe it," she seethed in scandalized tones. She yanked out one of the chairs and plopped down on the upholstered seat. "Really, Ron, we've got to do something about this."

"What are you on about?" Ron said irritably, missing the warning glance from Harry. He pushed his chair back, making sounds of angry protest as the wood scraped against the stone floor.

"This!" Hermione continued, waving a piece of parchment in front of his nose. "I found it over there," she added, pointing at the cork bulletin board covered with notices on the far wall. "They've crossed the line this time," she said, slapping the parchment down on the table, causing pumpkin juice to slosh out of Harry's goblet and stain the corner of the parchment orange.

Harry leaned over to read the notice, printed in shiny red ink. "Gobstones are for Gits! Join the Dueling Club Instead!" Ron snorted with laughter. Hermione made an angry sound in her throat. Harry could tell a fight was imminent. He focused his eyes on the bushy red and gold woolen rug in front of the fireplace. All they ever do is bicker, he thought with a sigh.

Without Setting and Detail

Hermione sat down with Harry and Ron. "I can't believe it," she said. "Really, Ron, we've got to do something about this."

'What are you on about?" Ron said.

"This!" Hermione said, showing him a piece of paper. "I found it on the board," she said. "They've crossed the line this time."

Harry read the paper aloud: "Gobstones are for Gits! Join the Dueling Club Instead!"

Ron laughed, making Hermione mad.

Quick Tips Section!

  • Reveal your setting gradually. Don’t attempt to describe the entire thing in a few condensed paragraphs. Sprinkle in the description between dialogue, and as necessary.
  • When you read novels, and especially the Harry Potter books, pay close attention to the words and phrases used by the author to describe the surroundings. Jot down any adjectives or turns of phrase that catch your eye, and keep your list close by when writing.
  • Inanimate objects, such as trees and buildings, can adopt humanlike adjectives to further the feel of the setting. For example, a tree doesn’t have to be described in color, height, and type. It could be described as, “looming,” “mysterious,” or even “blissful,” depending on the content.
  • Be sure the setting matches the tone. For instance, you wouldn’t want a confrontation between Harry and Voldemort taking place in a meadow of daisies with bluebirds as the background score. You needn’t be overdramatic and have the confrontation transpire in the storming rain and lightening, either, but if you’re unsure, it’s better to do that than to compromise the tone.

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