Thursday, May 25, 2023

Choose the Setting for Your Short Story: Location, Weather, Atmosphere

By Rayne Hall, @RayneHall

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: With a short story, you don't have a lot of time or space to develop your setting. Rayne Hall shares tips and exercises on how to get the most out of your short fiction setting.

Where does your story take place?

Consider giving your story an unusual, quirky setting. This will make the piece memorable and vivid. What’s the weirdest possible place where the events could plausibly happen?

If this is a romantic story about a first date, how about these two people don't go to a predictable meal in a restaurant, walk in a park or movie in a cinema, but a Ferris wheel ride at the funfair, rollerblading in a deserted car park, or picnicking on a mountain top?
Could the story perhaps happen in an abandoned factory warehouse, a wine cellar, a sauna, a horse stable, a hayloft, a mineshaft, a cable car, a children's playground, a stalactite cave? The more unusual, the better.

Consider putting all the characters into a 'locked room' – a single enclosed place from which they cannot escape. This intensifies the tension. Consider a railway carriage, a cable car, a prison cell, a cave with a blocked entrance, an island surrounded by shark-infested waters, a mountain hut during a blizzard... If the characters have no choice but to stay, everything becomes more intense.

A story may have more than one setting. Perhaps it starts in the kitchen, then moves into the garden, then the neighbor's house, and finally back into the kitchen. However, it’s best to keep to as few places as possible, because if you keep hopping locations, your story may grow unwieldy and long.

Creating Atmosphere

Skilled descriptions of the setting create intense atmosphere.

Lengthy setting descriptions can be boring, and readers are prone to skip those paragraphs, so it’s best to keep the descriptions short but intense.

Here are four techniques I want you to try.

1. What’s the weather like?

Intense weather – blizzard, heat wave, downpour, deep fog – can add interest to any story. It can also strain characters’ tempers, increase tensions, intensify passions and foil plans. 

Write one or two sentences, describing the weather from the POV’s perspective. Also show how it affects the POV’s experience: are the rain-slick roads slippery when she needs to run? Does she shiver in her thin dress? Does the heat glue her blouse to her chest?

(Here's more with 3 Secrets to Writing Vivid Settings)  

2. Describe the source, quality, color or intensity of the light.

This works superbly to create mood, and it can also help to establish the time of the day. Try to filter the impression through the POV character’s mood.

(Here's more with The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)    

3. Of all the senses, smell has the most descriptive power.

The mere mention of a smell is enough to pull the reader into the scene. A single sentence about smells creates more atmosphere and reveals more about the place than several paragraphs of visual descriptions.

As an experiment, just read these pairings and see what images they conjure up in your mind:

The room smelled of...

disinfectant and boiled cabbage

… patchouli and beeswax

… mothballs and lavender

… pizza and unwashed socks

I suggest combining two or three smells, perhaps in this format: ‘The air/room/place smelled/reeked/stank of XYZ and ZYX’. Put this sentence near the beginning of your story, or when the POV just enters the place.

(Here's more with Putting In Your Five Senses Worth)   

4. Sounds add excitement.

They can also create suspense and increase tension. Where possible, use vivid verbs to describe the sounds. Here are some examples:
  • Computers beeped, phones shrilled, and printers whirred.
  • A shutter banged against the frame.
  • A car door slammed. A motor whined.
  • A dog howled in the distance.
  • Waves hissed against the shore.
  • Rodent feet scurried.
  • Water gurgled in the drainpipe.
(Here's more with Creating Story Tension: Rooms with an Unexpected View)  

Novice Mistake to Avoid

Inexperienced writers tend to use generic settings and nondescript weather, missing out an opportunity to make their stories vivid.

Pro Tip: Change the weather during the story. If it’s sunny at the beginning of the tale, let it rain later. If it rains at the start, cease the rain and show sunshine and perhaps a rainbow. Increase the gentle dance of snowflakes to a fierce snow storm, and turn up the temperature from pleasant warmth to unbearable heat.

This technique adds interest to any story.

Tell us about unusual settings you have (or are planning to use) in your stories.

Rayne Hall lives in Bulgaria where she has created an eco-project for organic gardening. She has adopted several rescued pets and trains cats. Yes, cats can be trained – if they want.

She is the author of over seventy books, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Her books have been published by several publishers in several countries, and translated into several languages.  A trained publishing manager with more than thirty years’ experience in the industry, she also publishes her own books and champions indie-publishing for authors. 

She edits and publishes short story anthologies, mostly in the Horror, Gothic and Fantasy genres. Her bestselling Writer’s Craft series (the ‘blue guides’) teaches writers advanced and professional skills. 

Do you want your readers to feel like they're really there—in the place where the story happens?

Whether you want to enrich stark prose with atmospheric detail, add vibrancy to a dull piece or curb waffling descriptions, this guide can help. Learn how to make your settings intense, realistic, and intriguing.

This is the tenth book in Rayne Hall's acclaimed Writer's Craft series.


  1. I always think of the setting as more than background, finding different ways to utilize it. Given I write otherworld historical fantasy, my options are limited only by my imagination. For instance, a fog containing residual magic that works its way into someone's mind if they possess magic.

    That all said, there are more traditional utilizations. The setting can be foreshadowing, it can reflect the story's tone at the time, or it can stand in stark contrast.

  2. I usually use settings I know, towns, villages and cities nearby, often Cambridge and of course the Fens.

  3. I am recommending your books and blog to Gamemasters in roleplaying games, so that they learn better ways to immerse their players in a story.

  4. Would it be better to say Storyshowing? : )