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Jill Robinson February 11, 2021, 9:27 AM

Make Settings Come Alive

Wherever you’re sitting right now, have a look around. Notice the pictures on the wall; what’s on the table or desk in front of you; the kind of chair or couch you’re sitting on. What else about your surroundings do you notice?

  • The condition of the space. What are the colours? What texture is the upholstery on the couch? Is the couch or chair tippy? Is it brand new or ancient?
  • The atmosphere: Is it summer hot? Stifling? Cool? Cold? Stagnant? Moving?
  • The smells accosting you. Is it like chocolate muffins baking? Or dog poo courtesy of your new puppy? Or the peppermint lotion you’ve been smearing on your feet?
  • The sounds. Is there a high-pitched whine? A cat meowing? Gordon Lightfoot singing “That’s What You Get For Loving Me?” A kid laughing? Your mate playing Schubert on your grand piano?
  • If not the sounds, then the quality of the silence and what it suggests. A pregnant pause? The calm before the storm? Peace? Thirty below, and as still as the grave must be?

This is your setting. Where you, the main character in the story of your life, are at present. I’m asking you to share with me the world you’re inhabiting, so I can be there too.

When writing, you let the reader into the world you’re creating by showing it to them. This is an essential part of seducing your reader — because if you don’t seduce, enthrall, or engage them, they won’t keep reading, and you sure don’t want that!

Robert Kroetsch once told me, “Jill, your reader needs to know where she’s standing. She needs to know where she is, and once she does, she’ll go with you wherever you want to take her. But if you don’t show her, she doesn’t know, she can’t get her bearings, and she may well not keep reading. That is why the setting is as important to the plot as your plot is to your setting.”

Of course, if you are describing something to establish setting in your story, you won’t record every detail — from the roofing material on your house to the kind of bugs living under the kitchen sink (unless those particular details are important to the story of course).

You make choices depending on what you need to convey about the place. You choose the details that will help your readers see where they are in their mind’s eye, and help you establish the mood, or atmosphere, of what you’re creating.  

Setting is never “just” somewhere for the story to take place. You can get a lot more bang for your buck than that, and you should work towards that.

Look around you again, let your eyes rest on the pictures on your walls. Think about rearranging them — I’ve heard that you stop “seeing” pictures when you don’t switch them up once in a while. Heck, maybe you can rearrange your whole room. Go for it! See how it changes your perspective and consider how it could change your story.

If you’d like to learn more about making the most of setting in your writing, join me for my workshop on February 17.  

In the meantime, I encourage you to have a look at some of these books about writing from the library’s collection; they contain many ideas about and approaches to setting and other aspects of writing:


Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Jack Hodgins, A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction

Stephen King, On Writing


And remember that I am available to discuss your writing — shoot me an email and we’ll set something up:

P.S. It’s Indigenous Storytelling Month and Black History Month. Read widely!

About Author

Jill Robinson

Jill is a Canadian writer, editor and teacher with an MA in Poetry and an MFA in Fiction. She is the author of the novel, More in Anger, and four collections of stories. Her work appears in anthologies, magazines, and on radio broadcasts, and her creative nonfiction and fiction have won prizes including Saskatchewan Book Awards, and Western and National Magazine Awards. Jill has served as the editor of Grain literary magazine, as Saskatoon Public Library’s writer-in-residence, and has extensive experience as a creative writing instructor, writing mentor, workshop facilitator and editor.

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