Effective Story Settings

Effective story settings transport readers into the action. Some writers possess the ability to develop stories and settings concurrently. What they envision, they create in the minds of their readers. Other writers go into description mode and their readers develop mental pictures of places prior to occurrences of action. These two types of writing will be illustrated here with examples.

A story might take place at one of my favorite places in Colorado, The Seven Falls. I have seen this beautiful place from the bottom of the falls. I have climbed the stairway beside the falls. I have looked down over the falls from the top of Mount Cutler. As beautiful as it might be as a setting, the environment should never take center stage by being presented in isolation.

Example 1: Description Mode

“Colored lights create rainbows on the beautiful clear water as it tumbles wildly over the granite rocks of the canyon. Spruce and pine trees seem to jut magically out of giant boulders. Rising from the canyon floor, 244 steps lead to flower-decked banks alongside the crystal-clear stream. The creek, swollen with snowmelt, swirls angrily before plunging over the boulders.

Are you sleeping yet? This is way too much telling. The story’s protagonist needs to interact with this scene.

Example 2: Concurrent Development of Setting and Story

Tourists stop to stare as I sprint up the steps two at a time. My side aches; my head throbs; my legs protest. Cold water from the cascading falls sprays into my eyes.

Blinking the water away, I glance down the stairway. The man is getting closer. I can't see the knife, but his scowling face, lighted by a blue spotlight, says he is angry. I can almost feel the firm pressure of his grasp on my arm. Gasping for air, I try to move faster. Tears form in my eyes. 

"Stop her! Stop that woman!" The deep raspy voice rises above the roar of the water.

Beside the next step, a tall pine juts from the granite. I have no time to calculate risk. Quickly, I catapult over the railing and grab for a branch. Needles pierce my hands and scratch my face. I’m sliding downward.

Sirens are wailing. My back is screaming. I’m screaming. I hear a rumbling sound. 

“She’s alive.” The man’s face is blurred but I can see his lips moving. I think the patch on his shirt is blue and white. I can’t make out the fuzzy letters.

“Ashley, can you hear me?” The man’s voice seems far away. I focus on the lights reflecting on my beautiful Seven Falls. The water no longer rumbles but silently cascades down the granite rocks of the canyon.

Everything is fading away. I’m not afraid anymore.

This type of narrative engages readers’ senses and assists them with developing mental images of the setting at the same time characters are introduced.
Things to remember:
  • Story details should be a part of actions and dialogue.
  • Everything in the environment including weather, scenery, landmarks, time, and people factor into what characters think and how they act.
  • Be aware of adjectives. They just might be the enemy that slows the action, destroys the scene, and causes confusion.

The Seven Falls at Night*
Happy Writing!

*Picture from SevenFalls.com


  1. I shall keep this counsel in mind. Meanwhile, I am trying to break myself of using the run-on fifty-four word stream-of-consciousness sentence. ;-)

    1. Writers' whose works are classified as "literary" use those long sentences. So now you know. Your writing is such that it might be studied in a college literature course.

    2. As an example of how not to write? ;-)

    3. Not at all. I love reading literary works. This is probably why I enjoyed the required literature courses when I was in college. I've been told, however, that literary works are not NYT Best Seller material because most people prefer easier reads.