More Than Just Describing Place: The Rules of Setting and When to Break Them

BC Oliva

This exercise consists of a laddered series of writing prompts that alternate between generating prose and reflecting on that material. Broken into discrete sections, these prompts guide students toward examining setting’s relationship to other craft elements, like character and narrative. Students finish with a brief set of easy-to-remember and utilitarian “rules” to use going forward.

Bouncing back and forth between writing and discussion breaks the class up into manageable chunks. Progressing through multiple prompts provides multiple opportunities for students to participate in low-stakes writing, which makes the lesson more experiential and memorable. Students of all skill levels respond well to these exercises. Beginning writers find these rules easy to grasp and remember, which provides a solid foundation for other concepts. More advanced writers often find these rules cause them to interrogate their own assumptions or habits in relation to setting, which provides a creative kick in the pants. Because of that, I tend to run through these exercises early in a semester. Students respond well to the “rules” and often end up quoting them in later workshops and critique letters.

Step-by-Step Instructions

The following text is a suggested script to be delivered directly to the students, while rules are drawn up on the board.

Part I: Details

  1. Write on the board “Rule #1: Setting is a collection of time, location, and culture.” To students: For five minutes, describe a place, something you think of as a “typical setting.” This could be your childhood bedroom, a fantastical world, the DMV, nineteenth-century Tokyo, or something more vague like “the woods.” Write in the first person present tense and try to capture as much detail as possible. Remember all your senses—What can you see, hear, smell? And don’t forget Rule #1. What do you know about this place?
  1. To students: For five minutes, read over what you’ve just written and consider what each detail means to you and why it was important enough to include. If you could only pick three or four details to describe this place, which ones would they be? Why? What is the purpose of including certain details over others? Be specific. Lots of times the default answer is “because it’s interesting” or “because it’s really there,” but our goal here is to reach beyond the easy answers!
  2. Write on the board “Rule #2: Choose your setting carefully and with purpose. The details you include should be important to the story. Avoid treating setting merely as ‘texture’ or ‘background.’”

Part II: Characters

  1. To students: For the next set of prompts you’ll need to think of a character. They could be from a manuscript you’re working on or someone else’s. The only requirement is that you know the character well enough to understand how they would react in different situations. You’ll be using the same character for the next four prompts.
  2. To students: Your character is in the place you described back in the first prompt. Now, let’s say they want an apple. They really want an apple. And let’s also say that this character’s mother is there and happens to be holding an apple. In this place, what does your character do in order to get that apple? Don’t waste time describing the setting again. Focus on your character’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and words. Write for five minutes.
  3. To students: Now your character is in a nursing home. At night. And the apple is underneath the bedcovers of some sleeping person. Your character knows where they are, presumably how they got there, and they still want that apple. What do they do? Remember: thoughts, feelings, actions, and words. Write for five minutes.
  4. To students: Same deal again, but now your character is in southern Utah and it’s 1850 and the guy holding an apple is a bishop who just finished delivering a sermon to his congregation. Remember, your character knows this. What do they do? What can they do? Write for five minutes.
  5. To students: Last one. Your character still wants that apple. The year is 1989, the place is a Tampa Florida dive bar, and there’s a death metal band playing on stage. Someone, somewhere has the apple. Write for five minutes.
  6. To students: Read over the last four exercises. Did your character think or feel or act or talk the same? Perhaps they thought the same but acted or spoke differently? Why or why not? Barring time travel, was it even possible for your character to realistically have been in that place? How did that affect their response to setting? (Five minutes or more.)
  7. Write on the board “Rule #3: Setting dictates what a character can do, say, think, and even be.”

Part III: Narrative

  1. To students: So, how do we consider these aspects of setting in our own writing? Consider the opening paragraph of Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron.” It addresses time, location, culture, and character who/what/how:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

You can’t get much more direct. Vonnegut provides all the rules of this world within the first few sentences. This approach is efficient, but best deployed before you’ve started your narrative. Imagine if Vonnegut introduced George and Hazel watching television before that paragraph. All that information would feel like an interruption.

So, how do we incorporate these elements of setting without interrupting the narrative?

This section from Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine illustrates two methods:

At Delta, armed soldiers with bayonets escorted them off the train and the girl climbed down the metal stairs one by one with her suitcase and stepped out onto solid ground. The air was still warm and she could no longer hear the low moan  of the engine or the clicking of the wheel against the iron rails.

She covered her eyes with her hand and said, “It’s too bright.”

“It’s unbearable bright,” said her mother.

“Keep walking, please,” said a soldier.

Otsuka introduces multiple aspects of setting, mainly location and culture, via both action and dialogue. Physical aspects of the place are experienced and felt by the main character instead of just described; she steps, feels, and hears. Soldiers escorting her off the train (action) and telling her to keep moving (dialogue) illustrate the cultural power dynamic of this new place.

  1. To students: Look back over the first three prompts. Remember, your character is in a setting of your choice, and you’ve already decided what the most important details of that place are. Your character still wants to get that apple from Mom, but this time you’re going to incorporate the setting into your response. Write a brief scene that introduces the setting’s most important elements using action and/or dialogue.
  2. Write on the board“Rule #4: Don’t interrupt the narrative to create setting.”


Part IV: When to Break the Rules

  1. To students: Let’s review the rules:
  • Setting is a collection of time, location, and culture.
  • Choose a setting carefully and with purpose—the details you find important should be important to the story as well.
  • Setting dictates what a character can do, say, think, and even be.
  • Don’t interrupt the narrative to create setting.

Everyone knows that rules are meant to be broken, right? So when should you break these? Short answer is you, the writer, shouldn’t break these rules. But your characters can and should.

  1. Write on the board “Rule #5: When a character breaks the rules of their world, it creates narrative drama.”
  2. To the students: That whole Vonnegut story is about Harrison barging on stage, removing his handicaps, and convincing others to do the same. Reading Otsuka’s novel, you get nervous anytime the daughter wanders too close to a fence. Think of your favorite characters, and more often than not, they buck the rules of their world in some way. That’s a good thing. Can you imagine The Hobbit if Bilbo never left the Shire?

Tips and Hints

  • Five minutes per prompt is only a recommendation. Especially enthusiastic students may desire more time per prompt, and hesitant writers the opposite.
  • Technology-enabled classrooms and access to an online learning environment (e.g., Blackboard) allows students to post their writing immediately to share, review, or discuss.
  • If time permits, responses are usually brief enough to share in full, which creates excellent opportunities to center the classroom on students, make their writing public, and provide examples for discussion.
  • These exercises also work well as a homework or online assignment.


BC Oliva grew up a half-Mexican, half-Mormon mutt in Podunk, north Utah. He put himself through school driving forklifts, changing oil, repossessing houses, and building custom Harleys. Despite graduating from the University of Utah, he went back to graveyards at the airbag factory until he almost got blown up. After that, he decided to try writing and earned an MFA from the University of Montana followed by a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. He is now an Assistant Professor-in-Residence of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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