Purple Prose + tour

It Was A Dark and Stormy Night: Using Setting to Enhance a Story

To celebrate the release of her Novella Dies Irae, I asked author Christine Fonseca if she would talk about one of her strengths: using setting to set the mood. Not only does she do a great job with this in her story (which I'm currently reading), she wrote an AWESOME post on the topic.


Thanks, Stina, for hosting a leg of the blog tour for DIES IRAE. I am excited to be here today talking about setting. As most of you may know, I love writing dark and creepy stories. Whether they are gothic, romance, or psychological, one thing unites my stories—they’re dark.

One of the ways I achieve the “dark” tone to my stories is through the use of setting.

I view setting as a “character” of sorts—something that can enhance and enrich the story; the vehicle by which character emotions and plot themes can be revealed or embellished.

Specifically speaking, setting is comprised of the following elements of a story:

* Location – WHEN is the story set?
* Time – WHEN is the story set, both in terms of era and time of day
* Climate – WHAT is the season and/or the weather like during your story

Correctly identifying these things, as well as describing them in ways that work towards the overall tone and mood of the book can help an author create a memorable experience for the reader.

So, how do I do that? How do I use setting in that way? For me, it is always about placing myself in the scene and looking around. Using my five senses, what do I see, hear, smell? And how do these details help to create or push the emotional content of the story? Then I filter that experience into words.

Now, this is not always an easy thing to do. Most of the time, I put too much or too little into the story. My early drafts are often filled with purple prose, some passive language, and too many sensory references that I then need to rework. But eventually, after I’ve reworked and rewritten a scene, after I’ve taken the time to judiciously put in setting references without dragging down the plot, I come up with a scene that is powerful and rich.

Take this tiny excerpt from DIES IRAE:

“The mouth of the cave is complete in its darkness. A cold wind wafts up from the earth’s depths, carrying the scent of death. “Yep, this has got to be it,” I whisper.

Mikayel draws his sword and walks in. The descent is steep and narrow, giving way to an even floor littered with rocks and bones. Too many bones.

Everything is quiet. Stalactites line the cave’s ceiling like teeth meant to consume us. Small crevices recede into the walls.

And still, everything is quiet.”

My goal in this tiny snippet was to establish the setting in such a way as to build the tension the character is feeling. You will have to be the judge as to whether or not that was accomplished, but I would like to think it was.

Setting is a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal. Sadly, it is one that is not always utilized. Is it one you are comfortable using?

For me, becoming more adept at using setting to establish tone and mood, as well as mirror the emotions, has been one of the best, most useful skills I’ve learned—a skill I am constantly working to develop through writing exercises that include practicing writing different descriptions of places, all to evoke specific feelings or moods.

Try this:

Pick a familiar setting—a beach or mountain landscape for example. Write a detailed description of that place. Now, make it scary and write that description. Make it romantic. Make it foreboding. Keep rewriting the basic description within different emotional contexts. The more you practice this, the more natural incorporating setting will become.

How do you use setting in your stories?

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It Was A Dark and Stormy Night: Using Setting to Enhance a Story + tour