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  • Writer's pictureD. P. Lyle

Criminal Mischief: Episode #44: Setting As Character


Can a story be set just anywhere? Some can, but most rely on the location and time period to underpin and amplify the story. In the best stories, setting becomes an essential character. Can you imagine James Lee Burke’s iconic Dave Robicheaux being anywhere but Louisiana? What about Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder or Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch? Could they exist anywhere other than Amish country or Los Angeles, respectively? Jaws had to be on an island, The Godfather in New York, The Shining in an isolated mountain hotel, and Star Wars the far reaches of space.

Setting has 2 parts: Where and When

Setting establishes MOOD

Setting is not simply a description of where the scene is taking place. It is more the “feel” of the location. Don’t spew out a bunch of minute details. Pick the two or three “telling details” that reveal the feel and mood of the place. Always leave room for the reader's imagination.

Description is visual. That’s a given. Add depth by always including the other senses. What are the sounds, smells, and tactile characteristics of the locale? If your scene takes place at Café du Monde in New Orleans, incorporate the smell of beignets and chicory coffee, the sounds of flatware against plates, the clomping of the horse hooves of the passing carriages. If in a bar, maybe the smell of beer and cigar smoke, the clacking of pool balls, and the stickiness of spilt beer on the bar would work. If at a kennel, the yapping of dogs and the odor of excrement might be appropriate. If in a library, perhaps the muffled whispers of the patrons and the coarseness and musty aroma of the pages in an old book would be important to setting the desired mood.

The Telling Detail: the one or two things that set the scene. Might be visual or some other sense. Something that lets the reader get a feel for the setting and then fill in the details from his own mind. What detail or group of details makes the reader “see” all the other details?


Is your setting real or fictional? Urban or rural? Small or large?

Could your story be set anywhere else? Would it be a better story if it were?

What is unique about your setting?

What is your Protagonist’s and/or antagonist’s relationship to the setting? Has your character been there before, have a familiarity with the location, or is he a stranger in a strange land?

Is your setting a “story character”?

Description is visual so sight is a given, but which other senses can you bring to your setting? What are the sounds, smells, and tactile characteristics of the locale?

Setting is not simply a description of where the scene is taking place. It is more the “feel” of the location. Don’t spew out a bunch of minute details. Pick the two or three that sets the feel and mood of the place. Always leave room for the readers imagination.

What setting expresses your stories worldview and theme best?

Research setting by whatever means you can. If you live in the area or know it well, then much of the needed info is already in your head. If not, go there if you can but often that isn’t possible. Use the various map programs. Go to webpages that deal with the area and check out the history, geography, populace, businesses, and don’t forget the real estate sites that show homes and buildings in that area.

Try This: Walk into ten places you’ve never been before. Write down the first five things that make an impression on you. Now write a scene that takes place in each of these location.

Setting examples:

Black Cherry Blues--James Lee Burke

Her hair is curly and gold on the pillow, her skin white in the heat lightning that trembles beyond the pecan trees outside the bedroom window. The night is hot and breathless, the clouds painted like horsetails against the sky; a peal of thunder rumbles on the Gulf like an apple rolling around in the bottom a wooden barrel, and the first raindrops ping against the window fan. She sleeps on her side, and the sheet molds her thigh, the curve of her hip, her breast. In the flicker of the heat lightning the sun freckles on her bare shoulder look like brown flaws in sculpted marble.

In Cold Blood – – Truman Capote

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of Western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with it’s hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, and a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.

The Long Goodbye--Raymond Chandler

When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.

The Concrete Blonde—Michael Connelly

The house in Silverlake was dark, its windows as empty as a dead man’s eyes. It was an old California Craftsman with a full front porch and two dormer windows set on the long slope of the roof. But no light shone behind the glass, not even from above the doorway. Instead, the house cast a foreboding darkness about it that not even the glow from the streetlight could penetrate. A man could be standing there on the porch and Bosch knew he probably wouldn’t be able to see him.

A-List—-DP Lyle

Cafe du Monde. No place like it. I never visited the Big Easy without at least one trip for their beignets and chicory coffee. The aroma of each hung thick beneath the green awning that covered the patio, as did the din of conversation. It was just after eight and the place was packed, as usual, but Nicole and I managed to snag a table along the railing. Out on the sidewalk a street performer, a guy dressed like a clown, face paint and all, squeaked together balloon animals that he handed to one excited kid after another. Parents dropped bills into the small aluminum bucket near his feet. Free enterprise, baby.

Also From A-List—DP Lyle

Bourbon Street actually has three personalities, depending on the time of day. The one most folks equate with it is nighttime when it becomes one big street party. Stretching from Canal Street to Jackson Square, the neon blazes, the alcohol flows, and some of the best music in the world spill out of bar after bar. Not to mention the strip clubs. Ones that cater to any and all persuasions. Short of murder, few things are off limits. Of course, the Quarter sees more than its share of homicides, too.

During the day, Bourbon is an altogether different experience. For sure, you don’t want to see it around sunrise. It smells of garbage and stale alcohol, the detritus of the previous night. Like a decaying corpse. Refuse crews and street cleaners do yeoman’s work to prep it for a new onslaught.

But by noon, the trash is hauled away, the pavement dries from the hosing it has received, and the stench magically evaporates. People appear, street performers take up their stations, and music begins to crank up.

Circle of life in the Big Easy.

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