The Secret Characters in Your Story: Setting & Description by Elizabeth MS Flynn

What lingers in your mind when you finish a great story? Sometimes it’s the hero or the heroine. Sometimes it’s the crisp, crackling dialogue that made you laugh out loud (sometimes in public, embarrassingly enough) or bawl (also sometimes in public, definitely embarrassingly enough). And sometimes, whether you realize it or not, it could even be—gasp!—the setting.

Every part of a story can be memorable and stick in the minds of the reader. Setting is an unappreciated factor in so many stories, but without it, truly memorable stories could fall flat. Setting and description can be very, very memorable. Every story has a setting, and it’s a character in its own right. Setting and its description has a voice of its own, and it needs to be heard. Believe it or not, the setting of your story should be as well-defined as any of your human characters, and certainly something that you remember after you finish the work, writing it or reading it.

How can you make the settings of your stories so memorable that it lingers in your readers’ minds as much as the hero and the heroine and the dialogue?

Weather, climate, place, and mood.

Think of weather, rain as miserable as mud or snow soft and deadly. Think of climate, always hot and sticky and humid. Think of seasons, whether summer or spring. Think of the lamppost always shining in the eternal snow in Narnia at the beginning of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (where it’s always winter but never Christmas). All of it comes together to shape your story and sticks in your imagination.

According to, setting identifies and establishes time, place, and mood of the story, helping to establish where and when and the circumstances in which the story occurs. According to Wikipedia, the elements of setting may include culture, historical period, geography, and hour, even. Along with the elements of plot, character, theme, and style, setting is one of the fundamental components of fiction. So whether it’s a country, a town, a residence, a fantastical city, a fantastical place, even food as part of the culture you’re using as background, it all works toward making your story something that nobody can forget.

What are some examples of memorable settings? Manderley, of course. The great estate that is the center of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is a wonderfully memorable place, filled with wealth and sumptuousness and creepy servants who have it out for someone whom they think wants to replace their favored mistress. Will we ever see Manderley itself, for real? No (although there are various houses that are thought to be the basis of the house). Will we ever see Thornfield Hall, the home of Edward Rochester, the hero of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre? No, but we’ll always look up at great houses and the small window at the top, and remember the attic forever holding a crazy lady locked up there. We’ll always remember, in our mind’s eye, what the house must have looked like in its heyday, and what it looked like after it was set on fire, then in smoldering ruins.


Then there’s culture as part of your setting, and everyone knows how distinctive that can be. Mary Stewart excelled in describing in her romantic suspense novels the various places that her stories took place, all over Europe and the Middle East. In Nine Coaches Waiting, the story begins in Paris, where Linda Martin, an Englishwoman traveling to her new job as a governess in France, looks around in this snippet:

“Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand-new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-colored hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy’s initials, now half hidden under the new label smeared by London’s rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along between a stout man in impeccable city clothes and a beautiful American girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just drab, seen-better-days shabbiness that Daddy’s old case had, perched up there among the sleek cabin-class luggage. …But I was here, home after ten years. Ten years. More than a third of my lifetime. …Paris met me, assailed, bombarded me. The smell of coffee, cats, drains, wine and wet air…someone selling lottery tickets…the police whistles…the scream of brakes. …This was France.”

In this, the chaos of first an airport and then a major city greets Linda. Then in The Gabriel Hounds, there’s a marketplace in Syria that’s described, certainly no major city, and certainly not Europe, using many of the same things but presenting them in very different ways:

“The souk was crowded. Someone stopped in front of me to take a photograph. A crowd of youths went by, eyeing me and calling comments in Arabic, punctuated by ‘Miss’ and ‘’Allo’ and ‘Good-bye.’ A small grey donkey pattered past under a load of vegetables three times its own width. A taxi shaved me so near that I took a half step back into the shop doorway and the shopkeeper, at my elbow, put out a protective hand for his rolls of silk. The taxi swerved, horn blaring, past the donkey, parted a tight group of ragged children the way a ship parts water, and aimed without any slackening of speed at the bottleneck where the street narrowed sharply between jutting rows of stalls.”

There’s a chaos again here, and definitely not the urban center of Paris. Two chaotic scenes, but quite different.

Your setting can stay in the imagination of the reader for as long as he or she remembers the characters or the story. What’s the secret? We’ll be looking at setting and description over at SavvyAuthors, starting on Monday, September 26th. We’ll be examining some well-known books that have been published over the decades, spanning time and region and situation, examining how those books have set up shop in our minds and imaginations over the years, using their settings and descriptions as examples of their memorability.

Come join us and find out how to make your settings and descriptions as haunting as the authors we examine!

[box type=”bio”]Elizabeth MS Flynn has written fiction in the form of comic book stories, romantic fantasies, urban fantasies, historical fantasies and short stories, a young adult novel, and a graphic novella (most published under the name of Eilis Flynn). She’s also a professional editor and has been for more than 35 years, working with academia, technology, and finance nonfiction, and romance fiction. If you’re looking for an editor, she can be found editing at If you’re curious about her books, check out In any case, she can be reached at [email protected][/box]

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