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Do You Smell That? Setting Is in the Air!

Today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is “Setting,” which might not be as simplistic as you think. In which case, pay attention!

Yes, when we’re talking about setting, we want to see a description of the world around an established protagonist. At its most basic, this aspect of creative writing addresses the “where” of a story.

So when you’re describing their surroundings, you probably want to mention whether your characters find themselves in a certain country, state, city or town. And depending on the scene, parts of the plot or perhaps the whole thing might take place in a wooded glen or snow-capped mountains. Or, as I was reading in one fascinating novel-in-the-making recently, a swath of desert in Egypt.

Writers will also want to ask themselves if it’s spring or summer, fall or winter. Is the protagonist inside or outside when certain plot points come into play? Does the setting involve an empty classroom or a crowded theater?

But those are just the basic layers to setting. They’re essential details, mind you. I’d be a fool to claim otherwise. Yet those details are still only a few different strata in a tall and varied mountainside.

I’m using that simile in part because it works but also because I just visited Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas. And it was beautiful! A striking combination of colors, the rock formations there are clearly not just one giant slab of stone. From a distance, you can see how each section is a different shade of something, while up close – particularly in certain areas – there are obvious layers built one on top of the next.

That’s how setting is. It’s complex, with various layers you can explore.

Take Red Rock Canyon again. Above, I gave some visual descriptions of the place. But as a writer, I could also add that, when I was there, it wasn’t crowded. Or I might use another few sentences to mention how tall the highest point I could see was; the exact way the westbound sun was hitting the rock faces; or how the random patches of greenery stood out so strongly against so much undisturbed sediment.

But that’s all visual. And setting involves so much more than just what the eyes can see.

As I said in the Writing Definition image provided at the top of this post, “there’s a set of underlying details to consider, such as the political climate or aura of a place. How do your characters feel walking into a room? Welcome? Ignored?”

While it’s difficult to get anything political out of the particular setting at the particular time of day with the particular group I was with, it definitely did have an aura. Staring out at it and its twisted, turning hiking paths, it felt alluring.

There was some slight but steady magnetic pull that made me want to go exploring: to see how far upward and inward I could travel through and along and within it.

A week after the fact, I still want to go back to Vegas, not for the casinos and night life but to travel through the mountains again. I can’t get Red Rock Canyon out of my head!

Setting also includes scents and sounds and tastes. So I could add in the dry smell of dust and the absence of pollen clogging up my nose. There were so few sounds there, as I remember, other than the faint sighing of the wind and the internal echo of my teeth chattering.

Yup. I was outside Las Vegas at the end of April and my teeth were chattering. That wind might not have been loud, but it was cold!

And as for tastes? Well, it’s not like I licked the ground or anything, but every breath I took in carried the kind of clean worth savoring.

That’s what setting is all about: the visual, audible, smellable, tasteable, feelable, sensory experience of a story.

So feel free to play with it, and have some fun while you’re at it!

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