Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

Setting: Week 6 of Re-visioning Your Story

There’s a time and place for . . . time and place in your story. When and where your story takes place gives the reader a reference point, or as Dwight V. Swain calls it, ” a standard for your reader.” Getting the time and place right makes a difference like the difference between Sleeping Beauty’s castle and Windsor castle.

When revising your manuscript, you’ll want to be certain to read through at least once while focusing on how you reveal the story’s setting. Perhaps you think you don’t need to because “my story takes place in the real world, in a real city, in a real home/office/park.” Whether your story’s world is based in reality or made-up purely from your imagination, your choice of details revealed and withheld in your manuscript can support or destroy your reader’s suspension of disbelief. (And I’m assuming you want to do everything you can to support your reader in this regard.)

Setting is a huge topic. In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, Jessica Page Morrell calls setting details “a literary Leatherman.” And she gives a long list of things from politics to technology and everything in between that are setting details. Robert McKee says in his book, Story, “a story’s setting sharply defines and confines it’s possibilites.” He also defines setting as four-dimensional: including the story’s place in time (the past, the future, etc.); the time it takes from the beginning of your story to its end; where your story takes place, and the story’s position on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And Dwight V. Swain remind us of three key points in Techniques of the Selling Writer: “your reader has never been there; it’s a sensory world; it’s an objective world.” Finally, I repeat: it is the details you have put in your manuscript that builds a convincing, or not so convincing world.

Re-Read Your Manuscript

Remember, you will be reading your manuscript but you will not correct a single typo or word. When you read through your manuscript you need to have your favorite writing implement, your revision notebook, and five colored highlighters. You are going to read through your manuscript and list each different physical location in which action takes place on a different page of your notebook.

Be specific. Write: the living room of character A’s house; the kitchen of character A’s house; the front yard of character A’s house; not just ‘the house.’ Beneath the location list the words you used to describe this location. If you character moves within this location you may want to draw a sketch of the layout of the room.

First, go through your novel scene-by-scene. For each scene (and transition when applicable) you are going to list:








The Story’s Setting

When you have finished identifying the parts of setting you have in your story, review your notes and think about the story as a whole. Fill in the same information, but this time do it for the story as a whole.

Historical time:






Analyze Setting in Scenes

When you have finished listing these things, it is time to analyze the effectiveness of your each scene. Donald Maass said “use the world as a vital force in which the characters move,” in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. You agree? Of course, but do you know how you determine if you’ve shown your story world as a vital force? Ask questions. Question every bit of the information you’ve gathered in your notebook.

  • Historical time
    ·Does the historical time period add conflicts, obstacles, mood or character to your story?
    ·Is there a different time period that would increase the conflicts or obstacles?
  • Date
    ·What does the date and day of the week add to the scene?
    ·Would a different time of day, or day of the week, improve the conflict, tension, or mood?
    ·Would more or less time increase the tension?
  • Time
    ·What does the time of day add to this scene? Think about what makes dawn different from sunset or mid-afternoon different from suppertime?
    ·Is there a different time of day that would increase obstacles, conflict, or mood?
  • Duration
    According to Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer, “There are two kinds of time in this world: chronometrical and emotional. One you measure with a watch; the other with the human heart.”
    ·In chronologic time, how long does the scene last?
    ·Does the amount of action and dialog you have on the page match this duration?
    ·Have you timed yourself as you read the dialog out loud? Or figured what the actual travel time for the distance would be, using the same method of conveyance?
    ·In emotional time, how long does the scene last? Remember Einstein said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than an hour.” So how long does it feel to your character?
  • Location:
    ·Where does the scene take place?
    ·Is there someplace else that this scene could take place that would increase the conflict, tension, obstacles, or mood?
    ·How many different locations do you have in your entire story? Why?
    ·How do your characters feel about the location? Is it homey and comfortable or a place assoicated with painful memories? What does he love about it? What does he hate about it?
  • Details:

In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us,, Jessica Page Morrell points out that “description does not equal inventory.”
·Does your descriptions of setting sound like a listing of inventory?
·Do the first three things your viewpoint notices give a firm, overall grasp of the location?
·What does your viewpoint character feel about this location or time?
·How many more details did you give for this location?
·Does the number of details you’ve given match the importance of the location or time?
·Can you change the impact of the setting (location or time) by decreasing or the number of details?
Jessica also reminds us “don’t use categories (cats, boxer shorts, restaurants) use specifics: Siamese , plaid boxer shorts, or Sushi restaurant.”
·Are there other details that would better evoke the mood, theme, visual image?

  • Senses:
    ·Is there more than two colors on each page? If there are two or fewer colors on the page, you might want to add more.

Prepping the Muse

Whew! That was a lot of work in a full length novel. By now, your muse is probably chomping at the bit, impatient to be re-writing. Write notes in your revision notebook. This week you are still prepping the muse. Next week, you will restructure your story.
images from copyright free photos dot org dot uk

Which of the part(s) of setting did you excel at in your manuscript?
Which part(s) did you discover were weaker?

I love hearing from you, but whether you comment or not, thank you for spending time with me.

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

Re-Visioning Your Story

Lesson 2: Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

Lesson 3: Twist the Knife Slowly

Lesson 4: Do Your Characters Play Well with Others?

Lesson 5: As the Plot Turns

Lesson 6: above

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together


    1. Yes, writing a novel is a lot of work. And it’s an emotional roller coaster for me: Oh, I’m good . . . Oh, I’m terrible. But it’s a lot of fun, too. 🙂 Thanks for commenting! And for bookmarking!

  1. I think readers can really tell whether we “know” the setting or not, whether made up or real. I was visiting New York a few months ago and realized that one of my WIPS, which takes place in NYC, needed a setting refresher… 😉

    Thanks for the practical pointers, Lynette!

    1. Boy, there is nothing like visiting the setting if possible. There are things that you forget, you don’t know, you don’t think about.

      Glad you found the pointers helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I agree with August. I think visiting the setting in our novels is so important. The setting of my WIP is Miami, but it was really still Ecuador in my head. So, I went to visit Miami and the setting became so alive, like a character itself. Then I realized that Miami is actually where I want to be. Things happen in a funny way sometimes. Setting is very important, indeed.

  3. I remember something else Donald Maass said in a workshop: What are three sensory details ONLY the POV character would notice? The cobwebs she sees on the canopy because because she’s flat on her back in the bed, the eyes of the portrait across the room staring down at the bed, the mustiness of the bed hangings, the creak of the springs when her husband climbs onto his side… Helped clarify for me the difference between inventory and description.

    And more Maass: What are three objects in the setting ONLY the POV character would notice that could be used as symbols? The wilted bouquet and its brackish scent, color purple (for passion and suffering), the long case clock bonging in the hallway when husband takes off his robe… it gets to be SUCH fun, playing with setting to deepen the novel, until some fine day, somebody says about your book, “Her settings rise to the level of becoming characters.”

    Great post, thanks for prompting yet another look at each scene.

    1. Yes. The rule of three is absolutely valuable in establishing time and place. And the point about what three objects could be used as symbols is a really good one. Maass has a lot of wonderful tips.

      I love to play with setting, too, especially in revision when everything seems to come into sharp focus.

      Thank you so much for sharing what you’ve learned.

  4. Lynette, this is a fantastic breakdown of setting and time. I love these tips for analyzing setting as well — incredibly useful. As a sociologist, I find myself constantly trying to pull apart the larger context of my story, even if those minuscule details might not make their way into the novel. And as a reader, I really appreciate when an author takes the time to make note of location and time period. Definitely helps the world to seem more real, regardless of genre.

    1. I tend to overbuild my world and over-research, but I feel as if I can then pick and choose more effective details. Like you, I appreciate authors who take the time to make the story world seem more real. Thanks for sharing, Lena!

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