Is a powerful sense of place or setting vital in any short story? Of course! Otherwise, the reader won’t make sense of the tale. But you can use setting to do far more than convey background details.
It can also evoke mood and enhance character.
It’s very easy to use setting to create mood when writing in the first person viewpoint.
For example, a mother describes a children's party. Everybody is having fun. Why then is her account of that joyful scene so sombre? Because the mother’s child is not there. A tragic story is waiting to be told. Her sadness is evident because the reader can see directly into the mother’s mind.
When the story is written in the third person, it might seem even easier to create a mood - but thereby lies a trap. The omniscient author simply has to describe a wood as ‘fearful’ and the tale instantly takes on a dark tone. Easy? Yes. But it’s the sign of a hack writer.
A subtle way to describe a setting
A far more subtle ploy is to select some detail of setting for the character to comment on - then use their comment to define the story’s mood. Almost any small thing can do it.
Imagine a man finds chewing gum on the seat of his pants. Maybe it will confirm to him every grim suspicion he has ever held about that slum town, its wretched people and its filthy public transport. His angry reflections can show the reader, in just one line, all they need to know about the man’s antiquity, philosophy, temper and political position.
A proven way to convey a lot of background details
Of course, at times it may be necessary to impart a great deal of detail about the setting. Maybe its peculiarities are critical to the story. Modern readers won’t put up with a travel brochure so the simplest way to convey the minutiae of setting is to weave it in as the tale progresses.
One way is to have a stranger ask an habitué of the area a naive question. It gives a pretext for that knowledgeable person to impart some background, without the details seeming unnatural.
“Why are all the noses broken on the statues in the church?” the stranger asks.
“Cromwell’s men did that when they came here in 1644,” the churchwarden replies. “That hole in the transept wall was made by a cannon ball. And over here, you can see...”
Another way is to tag background information onto action, as if in passing.
“I pushed open the back door. It was still overhung with the clematis that my father had planted in my youth, when the bustling modern town of Clinethorpe was a village.”
Setting makes a powerful symbol
Perhaps the most powerful way to use setting is to give it some symbolic value. Whenever some key aspect of the setting re-emerges in the story it has a special significance.
So the sun-drenched walls of an old chateau might appear at the outset as charming but then be presented as successively sinister, romantic and benign as the tale of blood, lust and wedding bells unfolds to a joyful ending.
With each re-appearance, the chateau walls - or any symbolic aspect of the setting - can summarize major changes in the mood of the character or the tenor of the story.
Setting can give a tale a satisfying unity
Above all, if a story starts with a setting depicted as a symbol, the story can return to the symbol in the closing episode. This will grant the story a powerful unity and coherence. All else being excellent, the story should do very well in a top writing award.
More of this feature can be explored in a 14-week mini-course of story writing tactics provided without charge at Writers' Village: http://www.writers-village.org/writing-awards-help