According to Wikipedia: In fiction, setting includes the time, location, and everything in which a story takes place, and initiates the main backdrop and mood for a story.
That's a fairly decent definition. But we, as authors, can't just say "Star Date: 8900.3, Starship Enterprise, Captain's Log" at the beginning of our story or whenever we have a scene change...though it would make things a lot easier, lol.
When I begin writing a story, I start with characters (who are they, where did they come from, what do they look like) but right behind them is the Setting. Why so? Because the answer can lead to Why Are They Here and that is invaluable to the plot.
Many authors use the setting as a character itself. Setting can lead to opportunities to add to the characterization or the plot. In my short story, Magician's Tale, the characters are scientists doing a quick study on a planet that rotates around a binary star system. In my novel, Heartstone, the characters travel to two planets totally different from Earth in climate and or life forms.
My preference is to use the setting to help show mood or lead in to conflict. Here are some examples and a brief description of why I used it.
Weather Related Setting Descriptions
The sky turned storm-silver and he heard the muffled roll of thunder, accompanied by the closer whine of a man-thing. (Heart of a Dragon – introduced the conflict)
An ocean breeze, faintly laced with brine and damp, rolled up the mountain to chill his sweat-dampened skin. (Heartstone – leads into a scene showing internal fear)
Time of Day Setting Descriptions
A shadow, long and sharp in the sun's slanting rays, moved and vanished before Keriam could identify it. (Heartstone – shows contrasting mood)
Far out to sea, a pale line of fog rose out of the ocean depths. High above the fog, a star pulsed in the indigo sky. (Altered Destiny – leads to characters mood)
But what if (my favorite phrase, lol) what if your character is on another planet?
Maureen McKinna’s polarized faceplate darkened as she looked toward the ominous red giant rapidly sinking behind the serrated teeth of the horizon. (Magician's Tale – lead in to upcoming danger)
Mood Related Setting Descriptions
The trees grew in an odd triad formation, three boles rooted companionably together. (Heartstone – shows viewpoint characters' intrigue with new world)
The only signs of life were low, sulky bushes and a sooty yellow grass that hugged the ground stubbornly. (Heartstone – shows not only the desolate landscape but reflects the viewpoint characters' mood)
These are just a few ways to show the setting. Yes, they're brief and in their stories they're usually accompanied by an extra two or three sentences. But even when describing an alien world, you don't need paragraph on paragraph devoted to the setting. (Unless you write like James Michener who devoted pages and pages to describe the place his novel was set.)
Whether it's to enhance characterization or plot, mood or theme, setting is more than just pretty place. It's a vital component in the writer's arsenal.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
In her family of Kentucky 'ridge runners', oral tales were a tradition that even the children participated in. She spent many nights with her brother, cousins and friends telling tall tales to excite the imagination. Now she creates award winning science fantasy romance filled with despair, hope, love and courage.