Start a Story with a Setting

Settings are the ugly ducklings in the world of literary elements. They aren’t appreciated for how rich they can make a story. But some writers can’t begin a story without first finding the right setting. Maybe you want to start a story with a setting, but that’s as far as you’ve gotten. How can you develop characters? Concoct a plot? Find a theme? Ask yourself the questions below so you can home in on why this setting seems perfect for inspiring a story, beyond that you kinda like it.

What first attracted you to the setting?

Is it because you are very familiar with it? Knowing a setting down to its roots can make it come alive to readers. Maybe it’s the small mountain town where you grew up. Or the fishing boat you worked on for three summer in high school. Perhaps you’ve worked at a fish hatchery for ten years and know that business inside and out. Or you love to bird and love the settings you’ve visited to pursue your hobby.

Or maybe the setting captured your interest because you’d love to know more about it. I started watching Nova and Nature on PBS years ago because my oldest is a science nut. I still watch them because I find them introducing me to worlds and occupations I never new about. Several years ago, PBS showed a series on a revitalized Gorongosa Park in Mozambique. A wildlife filmmaker who grew up in neighboring African countries was the host. Through the series, I learned about him, the rangers in the park, his sister, who studies elephants, and the politics of the country, both past and present–all kinds of information stemming from a gorgeous location.

Who lives in this setting?

Once you pinpoint why you think your setting would be terrific for a story, make a list of the people you would find there. If you’re not sure, do research. Like I said above, I learned about the people who live in and around the national park, enough to spark ideas for stories set there. If you can visit your setting, talk to the people living there. While on vacation on the coast of North Carolina, my family took a pontoon boat to Cape Lookout. The captain of our boat had the strangest accent– it sounded like a cross between Australian and southern. As he spoke to other passengers, I learned that he had been raised on one of the barrier islands along the North Carolina coas, and those people have their own unique accents. I’d heard the same thing about people growing up on islands in Chesapeake Bay.

That got me to thinking: why do they have unique accents? Do people still living there retain them or is the outside world making them sound like everyone else in North Carolina? What would it be like to grow up in a place that’s isolated enough to produce its own accent?

How do people live in this setting?

Once you start getting to know the people of a setting, plots will start popping. If you want to use your hometown, maybe it’s because a corrupt mayor was arrested there when you were in junior high and you think that could kick off the plot for a mystery. Since I tend to write for teens, I might wonder what it’d be like for a high schooler to have grown up on a barrier island and feel torn between a life there and one in the larger world.

For more advice on writing about settings, click here.

How would you start a story with a setting?

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