Your Story's Setting - It's More Than Just Scenery


Contributed by Karen Cioffi, Children's Writer

Setting informs the reader of the time and place of your story.

It can include the period, the physical location, the climate, and the social surroundings.

But it can do a lot more.

An example of this is the middle-grade book Walking Through Walls. It’s set in 16th-century China, and speech, descriptions of behaviors, clothes, trades, food, and more all add to the authenticity of the time period.

This allows the reader to get a feel for the environment the protagonist lives in and helps immerse the reader in the time period.

Your setting descriptions can be powerful.

1. It takes a village to raise a child.

Okay, that tip #1 heading is a stretch.

What that means is it takes all the senses when describing setting. Don’t limit it to just one.

It seems the most authors stick to the scenery—what can be seen. While this is an important sense, the reader will become more involved if there’s more to ‘feel.’

To make your setting come alive, your fictional landscape, use as many senses as you can. You should include smell, touch, sound, and even taste if the story allows.

In Walking Through Walls, the protagonist Wang is walking home:

Wang ambled back to the cottage. He noticed his favorite flower, the lemon lilies, in full bloom. They draped the landscape. Hmm, they smell so good.

While that passage doesn’t go into detail, it brings the smell of the lemon lilies into the reader’s mind, bringing another sense into the picture.

Here’s another scene from Walking Through Walls:

Tired and hungry, Wang trudged through fog thick as porridge.

This gives the reader a bit more insight into Wang’s journey. Again, while it’s not explained in detail, the fog might have felt damp on his skin. Maybe it left beads of water on him. The reader has something more to picture and imagine than just a fog.

The senses can also help to bring backstory into the story. Through taste, smell, and even texture, the character can remember people or times from their past, enlightening the reader about important elements of the character’s history.

2. Use your character’s emotions to describe settings.

If your character is in a good mood or reflective, he will sense the world around him much differently than if he’s in a bad mood or angry.

Going back to Wang and the lemon lilies, if he’s happy, he might bend down and pick up one of the flowers, bring it up to his face, and take in the sweet odor.

If Wang is angry, he might trample over the lemon lilies, grumbling under his breath.

How the character reacts to or describes his surroundings will add an element of emotion.

3. Treat your setting like part of your story.

Your setting can create a deeper experience for the reader. Using rich details will help the reader dive further into the story, feeling like she’s there.

It helps the reader understand what the character is feeling and what he’s facing.

Here’s a passage from Walking Through Walls:

Slowly, his gaze traveled up and up and up until he could see no further. The mountain loomed above him like a never-ending wall. Its thick, giant trees left little space between them for a trail.

This gives the reader a pretty good picture of what Wang was facing, bringing the reader into the story.

4. Add just enough setting description.

Okay, you’re a writer, and writing every little detail about a setting may come easy. You might want to capture it from multiple views or describe every color.

Well, if you add too many details that aren’t important to the story, the reader may get bored and skim over that section.

This may lead the reader to wonder what other sections she’ll have to skim over.

While you want to keep the setting descriptions within limits, the description or detail you include should do more than show where the characters are, if at all possible. Think emotional state, symbolizing, evoking a memory, etc.

Going back to Wang, looking up at the formidable mountain foreshadowed the difficult journey he had begun.

Like the rest of the story, the setting description should move the story forward.
The setting and its descriptions help create a connection between the reader, the character, and the story.


If you’re writing a children’s picture book, you can ignore the above.

The illustrations in a picture book fill in all the setting descriptions. They show the emotions, surroundings, and characters… they show what the story text doesn’t say.

It’s a whole different writing experience.

This article was first published at:





Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children’s author, ghostwriter, rewriter, and coach with clients worldwide. If you need help with your children’s story, please visit Karen Cioffi Writing for Children.
A 250+ page book that will help you get started or finish your children's book.

And for those children’s authors who are self-publishing, you might check out WRITERS ON THE MOVE PRESS.

1 comment:

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Karen, I have enclosed (edited to shorten) the tweet I used your icons to do easily--with the quoted addition. Most of us struggle to get backstory into a book without losing momentum! This is a perfect way around that.

I’m also wanted everyone to see how valuable the icons are! Especially if we doctor them up a bit to include a teaser. Here it is to give all your readers some ideas... (-:

"Writers On The Move: Your Story's Setting - This tip from it is a doozeyr! “Senses can help bring backstory into the story. Through taste, texture, etc, the character can remember {things] from the character’s history.” @karenCV @terrywhalin”

Carolyn Howard-Johnson

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