How to use setting to bring your story to life

A few weeks ago I read and reviewed Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s thesauruses on negative traits, positive traits, and emotions.

Then my obsession continued to grow. So I bought their two-part thesaurus on rural and urban settings.

Setting has always been something I’ve struggled with – or even forgotten – to include.


Now each of these books contain a long list of potential settings from a country road to the back of a police car, and each lists sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures that might be encountered.

They also include possible sources of conflict and people commonly found in each location Add a few tips from the authors and an example – you’ve got everything you need to write a strong setting for each scene.

But here’s the question: Does “where” really matter?

Keep reading for the answer…

HINT: I’t’s yes.

As a Vehicle for Conflict

“Conflict needs to be recurring and frequent while varying in intensity. Introducing it in an organic fashion sounds tricky, but the truth is that many of these difficulties can be found in the setting.”

  • Physical roadblocks may be the most obvious but don’t write them off yet. Rivers or mountains can be just as effective when challenging your characters.
  • Often the people in the setting cause the most conflict, and everyone type of person is likely to frequent a specific location. Think of the bitchy saleswomen in Pretty Women… See what I mean?200.gif
  • Choosing a spot where relationship dynamics – family, friendly, or romantic – are most unstable can get your characters into some tricky situations.
  • Forcing your characters to revisit a setting from their past can bring up painful memories, spurring him into action – good or bad.


As a Vehicle for Characterization

“What a character notices, feels, and interacts with in each location will show readers more about what is important to her… Get personal, get inside your protagonist’s head, and show the world in a way that allows your audience to discover the deeper side of your hero.”

Setting is a magical thing that can be used to:

  • increase reader-character connection
  • reinforce a specific emotion
  • amplify a character’s internal struggle


As a Vehicle for Establishing Mood

“The time of day, the weather, the season even a change in narrator can make a setting look very different than it did just the before.”

When it starts to thunderstorm in a movie, do you ever feel like something good is about to happen? No! It always signals trouble.


But maybe your character loves the rain. Maybe it’s cleansing her from past regrets. The way you adjust the setting can contribute greatly to the mood of the story, both for your reader and your characters.


As a Vehicle for Steering the Story

“When things are going well, most characters are perfectly happy to stay right where they are. So we have to prod them – adjust their circumstances to get them where we need them to be.”

Once you’ve calculated your hero’s intrinsic needs, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there a specific setting that might bring what he’s missing to the forefront of the story and force him into motion?
  • If your character seemingly has everything he wants, what location might erase something he values and upset his equilibrium?

Ahhh… The beauty of manipulation.


So setting is a renewed priority in my writing, as it should be in yours too. In fact, I carry them around with me now as I am editing my newest novel.

If these lovely ladies write anymore books, I may need to get a bigger bag…

Wanna check them out for yourself? You can buy Becca and Angela’s thesauruses here.

6 thoughts on “How to use setting to bring your story to life

  1. angelaackerman1 says:

    You have no idea how happy I am to see you post about this! Becca and I tackled Setting as a book pair because it really is one of the most versatile and powerful elements of fiction, and yet so many writers only use it to “paint a scene for readers.” You have totally gotten the essence of Setting and how it can be used–it’s an amazing multi tool for adding depth to every aspect of storytelling.

    Thanks so much for this, and I’m thrilled you’ll find this set to be a helpful writing buddy! 🙂


    Liked by 1 person

    • Tyler Richter says:

      Great article, lots of great ideas! One thought on using setting to move your characters can be the opposite of what you talked about. Does your character want to leave a place but aspects of the setting (from a glass box to a sandstorm, mountain or other impediment) keep them from leaving? So much you can do with setting to really bring it alive!


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