How to Employ All 5 Senses in Creating Your Setting

San Antonio on map
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Many writers believe 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 before you begin to write.

It's 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 of details, just ones that give the reader a clear sense of where the story is in regards to time and place.

The exercise below is an excellent tool for reflecting on your story's setting. If you include just the right details, you'll create a vivid setting for your readers that will transport them "into your story."

Begin by Reading Other Writers

To understand what details work the best in creating a mood, begin by reading part, or all, of a work that has a strong setting. It can be a poem, such as Naomi Shihab Nye's "San Antonio" or Elizabeth Bishop's poem "At the Fishhouses," or it can be a short story. Authors William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Jack London and Katherine Mansfield are all writers known for creating moods through their settings that anchor the story and understand how the sense of place infuses their work. Think about what in particular made you believe in this (fictional or non-fictional) place as well as the writer's knowledge of it. Ask yourself, "how did the writer make the place concrete?"

How to Use Your 5 Senses to Create a Setting

Next, spend some time thinking about your story's setting. If it's a place you've been to, you might look at old photographs, maps or diary entries and see what jumps out at you. What made you connect to this place? If you have not been to this place, look at some books or check out the place online.

  1. 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 grammatically correct. Just get down as much as you can. For instance, if you've been to the desert in Tucson, Arizona at night, picture the cactus, vast expanse, clay color, brightness from the night sky and mountains in the background.
  2. 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.
  3. Finally, in one line sum up the feeling 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 dominant mood? Which elements will complicate that mood? Which will distract from it?

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