Story Setting Part 2: Real vs. Fictional

image by Comfreak

First off, remember from Part 1 that setting encompasses such elements as place, time, culture, technology, geography, and weather. Thus, you must decide whether any real setting can work for your story.

Of course, fantasy and sci-fi novels need extensive fictional world building.

Advantages of Real and Fictional Story Settings


Real Settings

  • It’s all laid out for you; a good map is a great help.
  • Places you know well facilitate writing the setting.
  • Your hometown makes research easy; everything’s a car ride away.
  • You can choose from many ready-made places to enhance the mood of your story. (For a somber mood, perhaps the rainy Northwest)
  • Actual places give readers a sense of authenticity within the fiction.
  • Places familiar to readers readily supply them with clear images at the story’s outset. Readers enjoy being transported to places they know.
  • Real places can help book sales to people who reside there or to visitors who’ve enjoyed the area.
image by VictorianLady

Fictional Settings

  • Anything goes, as long as it makes sense to the reader.
  • You can still employ a mix of real-setting features but give them fictional names.


  • You don’t have to worry about describing actual landmarks, weather, and geography that don’t live up to readers’ expectations or are wrong. 
  • You can develop the setting to fit the needs of your story: a local business, characters’ outdoor interests, and the area’s traditions.

Disadvantages of Real and Fictional Settings


image by Unsplash

Real Settings

  You may offend readers who know or love the place, especially if you make statements they consider derogatory.

 You must get your facts right about all elements of the setting, such as geography, weather, and time period.

 You may expect readers to know renowned places as well as you do and unconsciously leave out descriptions they need.

 You could lose sales if book reviews say you did a poor job of presenting a country, state, city, or town.

 You may spend much time researching accurate details on a small town to satisfy only a tiny portion of your readers.

Fictional Settings

  • Developing all the elements of setting can be labor intense.
  • You must ensure the setting elements you develop don’t work against other elements in your story. (In an arid spot, you have the criminal bury body parts in lush parks around the town.)

 Combination Settings


Both cases require work, either in research or creating the setting. Perhaps employing a combination and using the advantages of both would help with the labor. You could create a fictional setting that is a composite of multiple real places to provide authenticity and the items your story needs. Or you might create a fictional place within a real country or state.

What to consider when deciding between a fictional or real story setting. Click to tweet.

How have you used fiction and reality in developing a book’s setting?

Point of View: Deepen Your Scene as You Employ It

image by geralt
image by geralt

Through two examples, I’ll show how employing point of view can enrich a scene as readers experience the setting, characterization, plot, and story theme.

I’ll use the same elements for each example.

   Character: Clara Hill, a twenty-three-year-old woman.

   Theme: A first-time teacher learns to reach and help her students.

   Setting: Classroom.

   Scene Plot: How Clara handles her first day of class.

Example 1 

Principal Edwards introduced Clara to the class then headed for the door.

He was leaving her so soon—with the black boy wearing unlaced combat boots and sitting in the last row, tying knots in the blind cord? And with the white pregnant girl, sitting in front chewing gum? Or was that tobacco?

Clara scurried to the teacher’s desk, putting the bulwark between her and the class. Seven columns and six rows of one-armed student desks. And all of them filled with lounging teens. Eighty-four eyes bearing down on her, sizing her up, following her every movement.

image by PublicDomainPictures
image by PublicDomainPictures

She grasped the English textbook with both hands. Anything to steady her trembling fingers. As she opened the book, her number-two pencil fell from its pages, rolled off the desk to the filthy terrazzo floor, and stopped at the mud-encrusted wader of the boy with one lazy eye.

She glanced at the boy. Wasn’t he going to pick it up?

“You dropped your pencil,” he said, one eye on her and the other on the pencil.

What happened to raising one’s hand to speak? And since when was a teacher expected to handle a class of forty-two miscreants? [Scene continues.]

Example 2

Principal Edwards introduced Clara to the class then headed for the door.

Clara ran her gaze over the students as she waited until the metal door clicked shut. A motley bunch, but they’d do.

image by tdfugere
image by tdfugere

She strode to the wooden desk, plopped her rump onto the spot where a lovelorn teen had engraved, ‘LILY LUVS AL,’ and crossed her legs.

“My name is Clara Hill. Ms. Hill to you.” She nodded at the teen in the back. “You who can’t decide whether to open or shut the blinds, what’s your name?”

Sniggers rippled through the students.

The boy released the blind cord. “Emmett Crowe.”

“Thanks, Emmett.” Clara’s clog nearly touched the knee of the rosy-cheeked young lady on the first row. She smiled at the girl. “What’s your name?”

“Annabel Grubbs.”

“How far along are you, Annabel?” Maybe Clara should have taken a birthing class instead of CPR.

More sniggers.

Annabel giggled, displaying brown teeth. “Thirty-four weeks.”

“My guess is you’ll miss the first unit test.” [Scene continues.]


Through point of view:

  1.  Clara is fearful and judgmental


    is bold and direct.

2.   Clara sees 42 occupied chairs, skin color, filth, and miscreants


     sees individual students, fidgeting, pregnant, and infatuated with “AL.”

3.   The way Clara handles her first day drives what needs to happen to satisfy the novel’s theme that Clara will reach and help her students (plot).

Perhaps, Clara changes her outlook and relationships with her students


fights the community for the students’ good.

Put point of view to work for characterization, setting, theme, and plot. Click to tweet.

How have you put point of view to work in a scene?

What 5 Experts Say About Writing Story Settings

“Many early-career authors treat setting as merely an element of the background – an incidental necessity, maybe, but a tertiary craft concern when compared to plot or character development or dialogue.”
—Jacob M. Appel “Know Your Place” Writer’s Digest November/December 2013

image by KreativeHexenkueche
image by KreativeHexenkueche

Let’s get started:

  1. Jacob M. Appel – “Know Your Place” (Writer’s Digest November/December 2013).

Appel holds:

  • Stories should reveal the setting by the second sentence unless there’s a convincing reason not to.
  • Stories should be set in places the writer understands well. The slightest errant details jar readers. He reminds writers that what’s familiar to them may be exotic to readers.
  • image by Unsplash
    image by Unsplash

    Authors must do three things:

º Orient the reader – don’t waste the reader’s energy in his trying to figure out where he is. (See this post on grounding the reader.)

º Awe the reader – with knowledge of accurate plants, animals, architecture, furniture, and “distinctive diction and syntax.” Appel says, “The magic lies in the subtle details, not the strange environs.” 

º Trap the reader – Appel suggests that a passage describing a setting is an easy way to slow the pace to build suspense, or anticipation of a surprise.

  1. Dwight V. Swain – Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Swain instructs writers to remember these key points about setting.

  • The reader has not been there. So, Swain says to paint the setting in full color and enough pertinent details to bring the setting alive for the reader.
  • image myMarionF
    image myMarionF
    The world is sensory. Swain says to build the setting through what’s seen, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. He says analogies are particularly important – perceived likenesses between two things using metaphors or similes.


  • The world is subjective. Depending on the characters’ objectives, attitudes, and pasts, they’ll react to their surroundings in unique ways.

3. Renni Browne and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Browne and King suggest that, because most of today’s readers prefer more concise literature, writers should give readers only enough detail to assist them in imagining the setting for themselves


I don’t think this’s necessarily contrary to what Appel and Swain have said. I interpret Browne and King to say setting is important, but don’t bore the reader with details they can already picture.



  1. James Scott Bell – Plot & Structure.

Bell asks, in the reader’s behalf, if the writer can take him some place he’s never been before, to bring life to the plot. Bell says the place doesn’t have to be far from home.

Bell advocates parting from the predictable to some place fresh. He mentions the overdone example of lovers-to-be talking in a restaurant.

  1. Debra Dixon – GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict.

tomb-333659_1280Dixon says the setting is important to heighten conflict. If the setting is at odds with the tone of a story, she suggests the writer will have hard work ahead to develop a mood of tension.

She gives examples of good and bad settings for dark suspense. Good: the rainy Northwest or New Orleans with its swamps, graveyards, and secrets. Bad: Disney World, and for a romantic comedy, Ethiopia.

Consider these experts perspectives when writing your story settings. Click to tweet.

As a reader, what’s important to you about setting?