Setting the Story

Techniques for Creating a Realistic Setting


Key Staff

This lesson can be taught by a classroom teacher or teachers with a basic understanding of literature in informal settings.

Key Skills

Making Art: Composing and Planning, Producing, Executing and Performing, Analyzing Assessing and Revising
Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Applying Vocabulary, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique, Comparing Styles
Creative Thinking: Creativity and Innovation, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication and Collaboration


Students examine setting as a significant element of fiction. They learn devices for creating a realistic setting, identify and critique these methods in well-known works of fiction, and use the methods in works of their own. Students also identify, examine, evaluate, and use the elements mood and spatial order as methods of creating realistic settings.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine, analyze, and evaluate character as an element of fiction writing.
  • Define and identify mood and spatial order in works of fiction.
  • Incorporate setting, mood, and spatial order in their own writing.
  • Write for a variety of audiences: peers, teachers, parents, school-wide community, and beyond.

Teaching Approach


Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Lecture
  • Group or Individual Instruction

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Plugins
Technology Notes


Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Prepare for this lesson by writing a paragraph or two that describes a setting. Include details that reveal the time and place, but also include references to customs, manners, clothing, scenery, weather, geography, buildings, and methods of transportation. You will read the paragraph to students during the “Engage” segment of the lesson. Visit ReadWriteThink.org for a literary elements story map. This will help you help students organize their approach to establishing setting.

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Basic vocabulary and concepts of fiction writing.
  • Definition of fiction
  • Categories within fiction (short story, novel, novella, etc.)
  • Familiarity with terms used within and to describe fiction (character, plot, setting, dialogue, etc.)

If students need a refresher, have them expolore literary elements.

Physical Space



  • Small Group Instruction
  • Individualized Instruction


Arrange handouts in the order the class will address them. Post content vocabulary words for easy reference.

Accessibility Notes

Arrange seating so that deaf/hard of hearing students are close to where instruction will be delivered.
Blind/Low Vision students will benefit from handouts with large print or braille.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Read the passage you wrote that establishes a setting. Have students sketch the setting, based on the information in the description. Read the passage a second time if necessary. Then have students create a list that includes the details they used to determine how they made their sketch. For example, the passage may reference a 1969 Beetle or a palm tree, a rising sun or a corner store. Allow students to share the pictures. Have them analyze and evaluate one another’s work. Discuss the lists as a group.

2. Explain that a story's setting is not limited to place. Setting also includes time. There are many details in a story that help establish its time and place. Customs, manners, clothing, scenery, weather, geography, buildings, and methods of transportation are all part of setting.

3. Now have students draw sketches of their own. Explain that a partner will have to write a passage that establishes a setting based on their drawing. Ask them to include details that might indicate time and place.

4. Pair students. Have them swap sketches. Instruct students to create a passage that paints a setting based on their partner's sketch. Then, have the pairs discuss both processes. Explain that when a writer is creating a setting, it is helpful to know precisely what is being described. Brief exercises like sketching a place can help with the creative process.

5. Explain that setting is such an important element because it provides the foundation upon which a story will be set. Setting describes for the reader where and when a story will take place. It depends heavily on a reader's imagination and demands that the reader visualize. (For the elements of fiction, see the ReadWriteThink lesson, Book Report Alternative: The Elements of Fiction.

Resources for this step:

Teacher-written passage
Colored pencils
Blank paper

Build Knowledge

1. Explain that settings range from very specific to very broad times and places and can serve different purposes in different stories. Explain that setting is a literary element that may or may not have great significance in a story. The settings of some stories are explicit and established very early on. Others are implied. Some settings are very general—as in “a city during modern times.” And still others are very specific—Mrs. Cassandra Jones' living room, October 19, 1985. Likewise, some authors believe that a story's setting is as important as its plots and characters, while others are satisfied with establishing a general sense of time and place. The importance of setting will differ from story to story and this fact is entirely up to the author. Sometimes setting is fairly unimportant—as with most fables. Other times it will directly affect the events of the plot, reveal character, or create a certain atmosphere.

2. Read the following passage to students:

On a rainy November morning in 1776, a soldier trod a solitary path along a road in western Virginia. His gait was slow, and his face—barely visible beneath untold layers of grime—betrayed an anguished, exhausted expression.

3. Ask students the following:

  • When do the events of this story take place?
  • What clues tell you so?
  • Where do the events of the story take place?
  • What clues tell you so?

Evaluate the writer’s ability to relay setting. Discuss alternative ways the setting might be established.

4. Review and discuss the following terms.

Mood: The feeling that a literary work conveys. Mood is heavily impacted by setting.

Spatial Order: A method of description that begins at one geographical point and moves forward in an orderly fashion.

Discuss how setting, mood, and spatial order are related. It may be helpful to examine a few authors’ approaches to each.

5. Remind students that setting can help develop and establish the mood of a story. A vivid description of the setting will help the reader to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the environment of the story. Share with students the following passage:

It was a cold and cheerless evening. The fog seemed to hover over the street, clutching the buildings, the streetlamps—the entire city—in a damp, icy grip. If one were to stand still, passers-by would emerge briefly from the gloom, only to disappear from view after taking just a few steps. These ghostly apparitions tormented James as he impatiently waited for his valet to return with his carriage.

(Note: For another good example of an author’s use of setting to create mood, see Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Have students read and respond to representative passages describing London on Christmas Eve.)

6. Ask students the following:

  • What sensory details does the author use to draw the reader into the setting?
  • What mood do these details help create?

Evaluate the writer’s ability to relay mood. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of creating mood in a story.

7. Have students practice using mood to create setting. Post a picture of a group of people, perhaps in a city or town or at a public event such as a baseball game.

Divide the class into two groups. Have the first group give a happy description of the scene. Have the second group give a sad or ominous description. Discuss how the moods differ.

8. Establish with students that there are several ways to organize a description of a place.

You could start at the right and move to the left. You could start at the top and move to the bottom. Or you could start at the place closest to you and move to the place farthest from you, as in the following passage:

The door of the mansion dwarfed anyone who approached it. Even the tallest visitors had to reach up high to grasp the ornate door knocker (which surely was made of solid gold). The door swung open into a grand hallway, with floors of spotless pink marble. The walls were covered in gigantic mirrors, so that the foyer appeared to be at least three times larger than its already impressive size. At the end of the hallway, a grand white staircase spiraled up and up—so far that you might have expected an angel to greet you when you reached the top. But that was not so. The stairs actually led to a large, but surprisingly ordinary looking hallway with slightly worn, green carpeting and a long row of nearly identical doors. It almost resembled a hotel.

Note: For another good example of a setting description that establishes spatial order, see J.R.R. Tolkein’s description of a hobbit hole in The Hobbit.)

Resources for this step:

Literature excerpts that illustrate mood and spatial order


1. Have students use what they’ve learned so far to complete the Time and Place worksheet. Once they’ve finished, review and discuss it as a class.

2. Now have students complete the Mood worksheet.

Once they’ve finished, review and discuss it as a class.

3. Have students complete the following writing activity:

Describe a place that is familiar to you. Organize your description from either right to left, top to bottom, or closest to farthest point from you. Choose the spatial order that makes your description easiest to understand. Allow time for students to share one or more of their writing assignments in a small group. You may wish to have one student read a setting description while his/her group members sketch the scene described. Students should analyze the drawing to see where their interpretations were similar, where they differed, and why.

Resources for this step:

Time and Place
Mood worksheet


1. Have students write a short story that explicitly establishes a setting. They must also incorporate a clear mood and use spatial order. Initially, students should work independently. Once the stories are complete, they should share them with partners who provide constructive criticism. They should rewrite their stories to reflect the criticism.

2. Ask for volunteers to share their stories with the class. It may be helpful to determine who would like to share their work beforehand. This way, a method for sharing can be established. Copies can be made for each member of the class or stories can be presented with PowerPoint or even through oral storytelling sessions.

3. As a class, offer constructive criticism of the stories. Follow the pre-established rules for criticism. Allow the class discussion to include criticism of the work of well-known authors.


  • A successful story will establish an explicit setting, use mood as a literary device, and employ spatial order.
  • Peer evaluation
  • Self assessment

Have students arrange the classroom to reflect a particular setting. The setting should evoke a particular mood. Then have students write a paragraph describing the setting using spatial order.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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Kathy Cook
Original Writer

Andria Cole

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