How To Employ All Five Senses in Creating Your Setting

San Antonio on map
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Many writers swear that setting is the most important element of any fictional work. Whether or not you agree, you will want to spend some time considering your story's setting -- if you haven't already -- before you begin to write.

It's especially important to use specific details, especially those that don't immediately spring to mind when people think of a place. You don't need a lot, just the right ones.

Through this exercise, devote some time reflecting on your story's setting and conjuring the details to make your setting vivid for your readers.

Here's How:

You might begin by reading part or all of a work with a strong setting. This can be a poem, such as Naomi Shihab Nye's "San Antonio" or an Elizabeth Bishop poem such as "At the Fishhouses" or a short story. Faulkner, Willa Cather, Jack London, and Katherine Mansfield are all writers known for their settings, for how the sense of place infuses their work. What in particular made you believe in this place and in the writer's knowledge of it? How did they make the place concrete?

Now take some time to think about your story's particular setting. If this is a place you have been, you might look at old photographs, maps, or diary entries. If you have not been there, check out some books or look online.

Start with sight, which is for many of us the most immediate sense.

Write down every image that comes to mind, whether it pertains to your story or not. Free associate. It doesn't have to make sense or be grammatical. Just get down as much as you can.

Repeat the above for taste, smell, sound, and touch. Again, don't be afraid of unconventional answers. You never know what might end up in your final story.

Finally, in one line sum up the mood you hope to evoke in your readers through your setting. Is it a feeling of loneliness, menace, nostalgia, contentment?

Look at the lists you've compiled. Which elements will contribute to this dominate mood? Which elements will complicate that mood? Which will distract from it?


This exercise can also work for imaginary settings. In fact, for science fiction and fantasy, it's even more important.

What You Need:

  • Paper
  • Pen
  • Books, photos, maps, letters, diary entries, or other memory-jogging artifacts

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