Thursday, September 15, 2011

Using Setting to Create Atmosphere

I’ve read articles on writing fiction which state that, if plot and character are the two most important ingredients, then setting is number three. I don’t look at it that way. For me, setting is an integral part of my writing. I use several key elements of setting: where the story takes place (location), when (time frame), the weather and the season of the year (including holidays) to create atmosphere (mood) in my novels. The following are examples of how I used those key elements of setting in my first novel, Mixed Messages. Notice how the elements often overlap.

Location: In the distance, she could hear the electronic carillon from Westwood Methodist Church playing the theme song from the old television show, The Adam’s Family. She began to hum along with the music as she stood there, gazing at the three-story, cream-colored Victorian, admiring its multi-gabled slate roof, turret and wrap-around veranda.
Time Frame: She finished pinning together the pieces of the kids’ Halloween costumes. She held them up, one at a time, and examined her work. Satisfied with the results, she turned her sewing machine on and, as she guided the material for Danielle’s costume under the needle, running her fingers across the smooth, satiny fabric . . . .
The weather: “What a gloomy day this has turned into,” David said aloud, flipping on the windshield wipers and turning on the headlights. The sky was gray and a light drizzle had begun to fall.
The season: Looking out at the trees with their scarlet, orange and golden leaves, she was reminded of a poem by Robert Frost that she’d had to memorize when she was in school. She strained to remember the words but all she could recall was the title, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”


  1. Patricia, I agree with you that setting is vital to a good story. It's especially effective if the setting somehow drives the plot or helps define the characters. You have accomplished these ends in the samples you show here. Good work!

  2. Patricia,

    I couldn't agree more. My Henry Grave mysteries are set on a cruise ship, but the ship itself is more than just a background. It becomes a vital presence in the story line.

    William Doonan

  3. I agree. Plot and character don't exist in a vacuum. Setting helps put everything in perspective.

  4. Yeah, and I don't see how anyone could divorce the three. Setting, and how our characters view it, is often how we come to know who our characters are. After all, a young man who sneers at the Eifel Tower is a particular sort of person, and we know who he is through that action.
    -John Brantingham
    Author of East of Los Angeles

  5. Thanks for your comments. I'm happy to see that we're all in agreement on this.

  6. I couldn't agree more if the setting is not there the story is one dimensional very well done.

  7. I feel that a good mystery should have at least part of the story take place in shadow or at night. To me, the black of night is the perfect setting for a crime. Even though my book takes place inside a hotel, the crime is discovered at nighttime in a dark room. But crimes in broad daylight are shocking and unexpected, so this setting works too.
    Sally Carpenter
    "The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper"

  8. I agree with you. I have a story where the house is as much a character as the people. I love the examples, wonderfully descriptive.

  9. Patricia, you proved your point Augie