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What is the Importance of Setting

What is the importance of setting in a short story? Every short story must include a setting. It provides the backdrop of the story, establishing the time, place, and context.   

The writer selects a particular setting for many other reasons—as a motive, as a metaphor, to create conflict, to create a mood.

How the writer describes the passage of time is also important to the reader. The writer can use scene, summary, or flashback to show the passage of time.
In this article, I will discuss the importance of setting. I will cover following aspects of setting:

  • Definition of setting
  • Role of setting
  • How to Write about Time
  • Requirements of the Writer

Definition of a Short Story

The setting refers to the time and place and context of the story. The story takes place in a certain location, most often a single location. For instance, in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” , location is critical to the story, which takes place in the Yukon. The man is traveling through the winter snow with his dog, the temperature 50 below zero. If he doesn’t get to the camp by nightfall, he will die. Without this particular location, there would be no story.
The setting also includes the time of the story. Time is fictional, not real. Each story takes place during a specific period of time, most often a short time span, such as a conversation, hour, few hours, few days. In “Lust” by author Susan Minot, the short story takes place over several years.

Sometimes the story takes place within a particular context–social, political, economic, historical.
The writer’s must create a setting that allows the reader to suspend disbelief and read the story. To do this, the writer creates a setting that is believable, by using real or imagined names, places, concrete and specific details. The writer must also describe the setting with vivid descriptions and imagery, some imagined and others realistic.
How the writer describes the place and uses time contributes to the believability of the story. 

The Role of Setting

The most important reason for setting is to create a backdrop for the story–provide the story with a particular time and place. If the writer describes the setting with vivid descriptions and imagery, the writer can create a sense of believability in the mind of the reader.

Sometimes, setting is the conflict of the story. The setting stresses the tension between the main character and the setting, usually nature. For instance, in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, the conflict is between the man travelling on foot in weather in  the cold and snow of the winter. He attempts to hike, alone, with only his dog to a camp site, where is friends wait. However, to get to the destination, he must hike through the snow, ice, and cold.  He is in a race against time and frostbite. In the end, the man freezes to death. Without this winter particular setting there is no story.

Sometimes, setting can act as a metaphor of the story. For instance, in Hemingway’s “Hills with White Elephants”, the dialogue of the story reveals the metaphorical nature of the setting. The hills are a metaphor for fertility.

Sometimes, the writer describes a particular setting to create an atmosphere or mood. Read Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher “or “Tell-Tale-Heart”, and you will see how he creates a gruesome mood that adds to the tension of the story, one that reveals the main characters own emotional state. In short, a writer can create a particular mood/atmosphere to help the reader feel the psychological state of the main character.

Sometimes, the setting can act as a motive, driving the main character’s actions. In Tom Franklin’s, “Alaska”, a story about failed fantasy, the destination “Alaska” is the motive for the story that is told by the main character. He tells a tale about a planned trip to Alaska, but the trip never occurs. The writer tells us what would happen if the trip were to take place, how the men would quit their jobs, sell their cars, leave their girlfriends, and set out for Alaska to start a new life. The story begins with:  “Our aim was this: Alaska.” And the story ends with: We would stop playing as if on cue and look at each other, suddenly happy, remembering Alaska, waiting for us.”


Time in a short story is fictional or an illusion. It is not real. And so the writer must create a story that makes time seem real, allowing the reader to feel the meaning of time. How can the writer do this? The writer can craft a scene, write summary, put into use the techniques of flashback or flash forward.
A summary enables the writer to talk about “blocks of time”, such as the past week, past few months, past year, or many years in the past. The summary provides background information, an overview of the story, events that happened in the past. It brings the story up to the present time. The writer can create a summary through scene, describing a scene with essential details, a scene from the past. In a summary, the writer “tells” the reader what happened.
As mentioned in the previous section, the writer can show the passage of time by describing a scene, one that dramatizes an event in the story. A typical scene includes a setting, dialogue, action, vivid details, and the passage of time. Remember, action occurs within a particular span of time. Reading a scene in a short story gives the reader a sense of the passage of time. In a scene, the writer “shows” the reader what happened.
A writer can employ the technique of the flashback to share an event, details, background information, anything that occurred in the past. The writer moves from the present scene to a past scene, and so a flashback is a scene within a scene.

The writer can describe a flashback through the main character’s memory or expressed as a summary, providing background information to the story.

Often, the writer deploys the flashback to write about something significant that happened in the character’s past, which allows the reader to understand the story in the present. The use of flashback also enables the writer to include events that happened before the opening of the story.

The Role of the Writer

All short stories require a time and place—or backdrop to the story. The setting contributes to the believability of the story. The writer must create a setting that allows the reader to suspend disbelief. The writer can employ vivid details, concrete and specific descriptions, or language that appeals to the senses of the reader. Since a short story is short, the writer must add only the essential details of  setting,those that contribute to the mood, conflict, meaning, and believability of the story.


How to Write a Short Story: An Overview

How is a work of short fiction created? Writing a short story is not based on a particular formula or template.  Writing a short story is a process of shaping and molding, until the writer has crafted a complete story. In writing the short story, the writer makes many decisions—such as setting, voice, point of view, theme. Often, the short story is shaped through a process of discovery, as the writer crafts the story.

Read a few short stories from On Writing Short Stories or the Art of the Short Story, and you will quickly learn that there are all types of short stories. Some are short, only a few pages. Others are longer. Some use the first person narrative; others use the third person. Each has its own opening and ending, one that is unique. Each short story has an authentic voice, setting, meaning. And on and on the originality has been crafted by the writer, shaped and molded, like an artist paints a picture.

The process of shaping a story begins with an idea, which is uncovered or discovered from the writer’s memory, imagination, observations, life experiences. Short stories are created from all sorts of ideas—love, sex, murder, abortion.

From the idea, the writer begins to formulate the story. Often the writer begins writing with less than a complete story. The writer might start with only a situation and central character, theme or main idea, plot outline, and so on.

Once the writer discovers the idea for a short story, the writer begins to craft a complete short story, one that is based on a sequence of events with a beginning, middle, and end.

 The writer must make a decision about setting—time, place, and context of the story. The writer can create a particular atmosphere with the choice of setting and its details. Often, in short stories, the setting is the backdrop of the story. Sometimes, the setting is a metaphor. But the most important function of setting is to make the story believable. The writer’s decisions about setting shapes the story.

The writer must shape an opening that has a hook, one that captures the reader’s attention and motivates the reader to read the story. The writer might introduce a problem, pose a question, or describe the setting or mood.

Next, the writer introduces the main character, develops the conflict, provides obstacles, and introduces the rising action, leading to the climax or turning point. And then the writer must craft an ending.

The writer might resolve the story with a plot twist or epiphany or confrontation. Some stories have an open ending, in which the reader must make his own decision about unanswered questions.  Or the story can tie up all loose ends and answer all questions.

The writer makes choices about the series of events that make up the story. These events must have a casual relationship—or cause and effect. But a series of events or story is not enough. The writer must include a plot, which answers the “why?” of the story. The why of the story is revealed through the motivation of the main character to create tension and take the story beyond just a series of related events.The writer’s choice of events and decisions about the central character’s motives shape the story, mold it.

Sometimes, the writer begins the story with a particular theme or meaning in mind, such as abortion, divorce, sex. Other times, the theme emerges after the writer has finished writing the story. The meaning of the story lets the reader talk about what the writer has to say. The writer’s choice of theme molds or shapes the story.

Before beginning the short story, the writer selects a point of view. The point of view is the character who is the narrator of the story or the focus of the narration. The writer can choose one of the following:

  • First person (I)
  • Second person (you)
  • Third person-limited ( the narrator knows what the main character is thinking and feeling); objective ( the narrator knows nothing in the minds of the characters); omniscient (all knowing)

“Through the eyes, perceptions, or directions of the narrator or narration, we view and experience the story.” (On Writing Short Stories by Tom Bailey) The writer’s choice of point of view shapes the story.

The writer also makes a choice about the type and nature of the central character. In the short story, the story resolves around a protagonist or primary character. So, the writer must develop the character through characterization, including:

  • Dialogue between the main character and supporting cast
  • Thoughts and feelings and impressions of the main character
  • Actions and reactions of the main character
  • Description of the main character

The writer creates a story that involves a main character, who might undergo a change in behavior, or change in perception, or experience an epiphany by the end of the story. The writer’s choice of main character, characterization, dialogue, and change of perception shape the story.

In telling the story, the writer puts into use the components of fiction:

  • Motivation or desire of the main character to accomplish some goal or purpose
  • Conflict within the mind of the central character or an external source of conflict
  • Climax or turning point in the story
  • Resolution of the story

These components allow the writer to shape the story.

The writer also crafts the story by employing figurative language, including simile, metaphor, symbolism, and imagery. Figurative language entertains the reader and makes the “unbelievable believable”, allowing the reader to suspend disbelief. (Keep in mind that a short story is an illusion.) Figurative language enables the reader communicate abstractions in a unique way. Figurative language helps shape an ordinary story into a work of art. Language has the power to transport the reader to another world, and to make the reader think about meaning or significance. (Symbolism)

In telling the story, the writer employs the technique of “show, don’t tell.” The writer shows the reader what happens in the following way:

  • Vivid descriptions
  • Concrete and specific details
  • Dialogue
  • Action
  • Imagery

By showing and not telling the story, the writer to shapes the story.

In crafting the short story, the writer also puts into practice certain storytelling techniques:

  • Stream of Consciousness
  • Flashback or flash forward
  • Minimalism-the use of short sentences to tell the story. See short stories by Hemingway.
  • Foreshadowing
  • Figurative language
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Suspense
  • epiphany
  • Plot twist

The writer’s choice of storytelling techniques further shapes the story into a particular form.

 Once the writer has shaped or molded the short story into a complete story—with a beginning, middle and end— , the story should answer the following questions:

  1. What happens in the story?
  2. To whom does it happen to?
  3. How does it happen?
  4. Why does it happen?

 When you decide to sit down and write your own short fiction, you will quickly learn that writing short fiction is a process of discovery. Often you will not know the obstacles, or turning point, or how the story ends, until you begin writing.  And so you discover the story as you write and make decisions about the story.

To find out more writing short stories, you can read the following:

  • On Writing Short Stories by Tom Bailey
  • The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn

Beginning the Short Story

If the beginning of the short story doesn’t capture the readers attention and inspire them, they won’t continue to read the short story. Therefore you will never get your work published.

To generate interest and curiosity, writers often begin with a narrative hook, which grabs the reader’s attention, motivating them to read on and turn the page.

In this article, I will discuss a few aspects of beginning a short story. The following will be covered:

  • When to start writing the short story
  • Where to begin
  • How to begin

When to Start Writing the Short Story

When should you start writing your short story? Writers use different methods. Some begin after a complete outline of the plot. Others start with a beginning—and not knowing the ending. Still others, begin with a set of characters and the situation. Ideally you want to begin after you have worked out a complete story in your mind and on paper. This is the most efficient method of writing a story. However, since writing is a process of discovery, you cannot always begin after knowing the complete story.

In “Creating Short Stories”, author Damon Knight suggests that you use whatever method works for you. However, if your story becomes “muddled”, you should choose another method of working out your story.

Knight also suggests that as you think about writing your short story, you should ask the following questions to yourself:

  • Who is the story about?–Protagonist
  • What is the story about?-Plot/conflict/situation
  • When does the story take place?-Setting
  • Where does the story take place?-Setting
  • Why are the characters doing what they’re doing?


These questions should be answered as early as possible in your story.

Where to Begin

The beginning of the short story needs to introduce the mood, tone, setting, main character, and situation. You need to begin, as close as possible, before the first important event in the story.

Your opening should do the following:

  • Establish the mood and tone of the story
  • Capture the interest of the reader
  • Arouse curiosity in the reader
  • Open with a narrative hook that inspires the reader to read on

 How much background information should you include? Background details refer to history, climate, weather, culture, and so on. You can read several short stories to get an idea. A good place to begin is by reading short stories in “The Art of the Short Story” by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn.

When writing short stories, especially contemporary short stories, nearly all of the background details are taken for granted. If you write “Toronto”, the reader will fill in much of the background information in his mind, if he/she has visited or lived in that city.

When introducing the setting, provide only the essential details, such as time and place and context, enough for the reader to “suspend disbelief” and “imagine” where the story takes place, as if it were true.

Your goal is to “create a dream in the mind of the reader.” You must do this by making the unbelievable believable. If you include too much detail about the setting, you risk losing the reader’s interest, or your story will become muddled. Remember, you are writing a short story, not a novel.

How to Begin

Writers use different techniques to begin a short story. For instance, in “Barn Burning”, writer William Faulkner introduces the setting. His first line is” The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese.” In Babylon Revisited, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald opens with a question: “And where’s Mr. Campbell?”  Charlie asked.

Use whatever technique works for the story.

Here are the ways to begin a short story:

  • Introduce the conflict of the story.
  • Create a memorable mood. (See short stories written by Poe)
  • Open with the inciting incident or main event of the story.
  • Introduce a problem.
  • Introduce a question. (Read Tom Franklin’s “Alaska”)
  • Reveal the main character.
  • Describe the setting. (Read “Hills with White Elephants” by Hemingway.)

In summary, before you begin writing, you need to know what your short story is about. At the very least, you should know the situation and set of characters in the short story.

Your opening needs to capture the reader’s attention and inspire them to read on. Use a narrative hook to begin your story.

You should begin the short story, as close as possible, to the first important event of the story.

Writing Short Stories

In the splendid textbook, “On Writing Short Stories”, writer Tom Bailey examines in an essay what makes a short story. He suggests that to understand what makes a short story requires that you read dozens and dozens of them. By reading many and varied examples, you can develop an intrinsic sense of what a short story is, so that when you read one, you know what it is. Only by reading short stories will you understand how to write them.

Writing good short stories also requires that you develop an understanding of how writers tell the story and the elements that they adopt to write it.

In this post, I explain the purpose of the short story, provide an overview of the important elements that writers employ to tell short stories. I also list several good reference books that you can read to learn how to write your own short stories. And I list a several good short story anthologies, which provide good examples. 

Purpose of the Short Story

The short story is one of the most popular literary forms for readers. Its purpose is to provide pleasure to the reader and truth about the human condition. How does the reader find pleasure? A good story allows the reader to be transported to an imaginary place in time. It compresses the action of a tale. It encouraged deeper characterization of the protagonist. It often is based on poetic language.

The author of the short story makes the unbelievable believable through the use of vivid descriptions, action scenes, sensory imagery, and dialogue. The reader is able to “suspend disbelief” and enjoy the tale. And so, a good short story provides the reader with aesthetic bliss or pleasure.

How does the short story reveal truth? Short stories make truth tangible and real. This type of literary form is a good way to capture moments of spiritual and psychological transformation in a single event. Some stories have an epiphany, but not all. But the short story does not always attempt to share “great universal insights”, the kinds you discover in philosophy. Instead it attempts to show truth through a single event for the protagonist or central character in the story. In doing so, the short story shares a universal truth about the human condition.

The task of the writer is to tell a story that allows the reader to “suspend disbelief”, and in doing so, provide the reader with a pleasurable or entertaining read, and also share some truth about the human condition. 

Elements of a Short Story

A good short story has many of the same elements as a novel, including:

  • Setting-time and place of the story
  • Inciting incident-the event that starts the story
  • Plot/plot structure-the narrative arc of the story
  • Protagonist-main character in the story
  • Point of view-first person, second person, or third person
  • Theme-main idea of the story
  • Conflict- man versus man, man versus technology, man versus himself/herself, and so forth.

 As well, the writer deploys poetic language to tell his story, such as simile and metaphor and imagery. The writer must also be a good storyteller. In other words, he/she must know how to introduce the inciting incident, create conflict, introduce obstacles and turning point, and resolve the story.

But the short story is different from the novel in many ways. First, it can be read in one sitting, and so it is much shorter. The author tells the story with a limited number of words, less than 20,000. For instance, “Eveline” by James Joyce is only three pages long, and yet it is a complete story.

In terms of setting, the time and place of a short story is limited to a conversation, scene, single event, special occasion, day, few days, and so forth. In short, the short fiction story is a “slice of life.”

As well, the story is told from a single point of view, often the first person (I) or third person (he or she).

Fourthly, there are only a few characters in a short story. In many short stories, there is only the protagonist and one or two secondary characters. Essentially, the writer introduces a “manageable number of character’s”, only enough to tell the story.

Fifthly, a short story tells the reader about one thing, not many things. The writer writes a story about a single event or incident or experience. To find out more, read some of the short stories by Faulkner, Chekhov, or Hemingway.

Sixth, the writer can use lots of dialogue or very little dialogue to tell the tale. For instance, in the short story, “Hills like White Elephants”, Hemingway tells the entire story through dialogue between two people, a man and woman. In “Eveline”, Joyce tells the story with a narrative, and only a few lines of dialogue.

Finally, great short stories make the reader marvel at the author’s ability to tell a complete story in the fewest words. Nothing important is left out of the story by the author, and nothing unnecessary has been included.

You should make note of two facts: First, not all short stories have a central character or protagonist. Secondly, not all short stories include an “epiphany”, whereby the central character learns something.

Short Story Resources

The following is a list of books that will help you to understand the elements of a short story, the techniques that writers apply, and a several good short story anthologies that you can read:

  • Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction by Damon Knight.
  • The Art of the Short Story, Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn, which contains short story masterpieces from 52 different writers.
  • The Short Story Writer’s Companion by Tom Bailey, explains how to craft a short story.
  • On Writing Short Stories by Tom Bailey, explains how to craft a short story in part one, and includes thirty-three examples by many of the greatest writer’s in part two.
  • The Best American Short Stories Series, an anthology published each year.
  • The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, a collection of twenty of the best short stories selected each year.
  • 50 Great Short Stories by Milton Crane, an anthology of the short story classics.