Lesson 1

Fiction writers stage the action of their stories by establishing setting - the place, the time, and the atmosphere in which dramatic situations occur. The place confines the action to a specific location or geographical area. For example, the following are some of the places described in short stories and novels:

  • a bingo parlor
  • a jungle island off the Brazilian coast
  • a supermarket
  • a small town in Ohio
  • a roadside diner
  • a southern plantation

The time frames the action of the story by explaining when the events happened-the time of day, the season; or the historical period. Ralph Ellison’s short story “King of the Bingo Game” takes place in the evening. John Updike’s short story “A & P” occurs during the summer. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s.

The atmosphere conveys the emotions associated with the story’s physical environment. Descriptions of specific places often create the atmosphere. An intimate, candlelit restaurant may evoke romantic feelings.

The emotions associated with funeral parlors are grief and loss. Apply your understanding of the terms place, time, and atmosphere as you read the following paragraph:

It was raining that morning, and still very dark. When the boy reached the streetcar cafe he had almost finished his route and he went in for a cup of coffee. The place was an all-night cafe owned by a bitter and stingy man called Leo. After the raw, empty street the cafe seemed friendly and bright: along the counter there were a couple of soldiers, three spinners from the cotton mill, and in a corner a man who sat hunched over with his nose and half his face down in a beer mug. -Excerpted from “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” by Carson McCullers

In the following spaces, identify the three elements of setting:

  • Place:
  • Time of day:
  • Atmosphere of the place:

If you wrote that the scene occurs in the morning at a streetcar cafe, you correctly named the time and the place. The phrase friendly and bright describe the atmosphere of the cafe.

How Authors Establish Setting

As you noticed in the excerpt from “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.,” the author establishes the place, the time, and the atmosphere. Sometimes authors directly state these elements of setting. Here are some examples.

Direct Statements of Place

We went to the only nightclub on a short, dark street, downtown. The village of Loma is built, as its name implies, on a low round hill that rises like an island out of the flat mouth of the Salinas Valley in central California. -Excerpted from “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

Murphy slams the phone down and bounds back upstairs to his room in the YMCA to sit alone… -Excerpted from “Murphy’s Xmas” by Mark Costello

The military school of St. Severin. The gymnasium. The class in their white cotton shirts stand in two rows under the big gas lights. -Excerpted from “Gym Period” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Direct Statements of Time

I sit in the sun drinking gin. It is ten in the morning.

  • Excerpted from “The Fourth Alarm” by John Cheever

It was the second day of Easter week.

  • Excerpted from “The Peasant Marey” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of full-summer day.

  • Excerpted from “The Lottei’ by Shirley Jackson

It was December-a bright frozen day in the early morning.

  • Excerpted from “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty

Direct Statements of Atmosphere

The oiler swung the boat then and, seated in the stern, the cook and the correspondent were obliged to look over their shoulders to contemplate the lonely and indifferent shore.

  • Excerpted from “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane

The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty…. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hungover and pervaded all.

  • Excerpted from “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe

Inferring Place and Time

When authors do not name the place or time, you can infer this information from descriptive details. Infer where the action in the following paragraph occurs.

The pass was high and wide and he jumped for it, feeling it slap flatly against his hands, as he shook his hips to throw off the halfback who was driving at him. The center floated by, his hands desperately brushing Darling’s knee as Darling picked his feet up high and delicately ran over a blocker and an opposing linesman in a jumble on the ground near the scrimmage line.

  • Excerpted from “The Eighty Yard Run” by Irwin Shaw

If you said the action occurs on a football field, you were correct. What are some of the clues that support this inference? Write the words or phrases on the following lines:

When taken together, the terms pass, halfback, blocker, and scrimmage line all refer to football. You can conclude that the men are playing this sport on a football field.

In the next example the author does not tell the reader the era in which the story is set. However, you can infer the historical period from the description of the main character, a man who is hanged for treason.

Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respectable Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause.

  • Excerpted from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge “ by Ambrose Bierce

What clues from the character description suggest that the story happens during the Civil War years? On the following lines, write two phrases that support this inference about setting:

As you probably noted, Peyton Farquhar is a “slave owner” who is “devoted to the Southern cause,” which included preserving the institution of slavery.

Inferring Atmosphere

Recall that atmosphere refers to the emotional qualities associated with a place. An author usually suggests an atmosphere by describing the physical appearance of a place or by showing how characters react to their environment. The following paragraph describes an abandoned house. Notice the feelings conveyed by the descriptive language.

On a night the wind loosened a shingle and flipped it to the ground. The next wind pried into the hole where the shingle had been, lifted off three, and the next, a dozen. The midday sun burned through the hole and threw a glaring spot on the floor. The wild cats crept in from the fields at night, but they did not mew at the doorstep any more. They moved like shadows of a cloud across the moon, into the rooms to hunt the mice. And on windy nights the doors banged, and the ragged curtains fluttered in the broken windows.

  • Excerpted from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

This excerpt illustrates how the sun and the wind are gradually destroying an empty house. What is your impression of the atmosphere? desolate? Bleak? dreary? These are some of the words that capture the overall feeling of this place. John Steinbeck, the author, conveys the atmosphere through images relating to sights and sounds. Reread his concluding sentence. Try to imagine hearing doors banging on a windy night and seeing ragged curtains fluttering in broken windows.


Writing Activity 1

Where would you like to be at this moment? at the beach? in the mountains? at a party with friends and family? On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph describing the setting and atmosphere of the scene you envision. Use plenty of descriptive details to make your paragraph vivid.