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How to Proplerly Address the Elements of Setting, Context, and Plot in Your Short Story
Writing the Elements of Setting, Context, and Plot in a Short Story

This article is very important to your short story writing because we're going to discuss how to take a story idea, put it to paper, and bring it to life. There's a lot of information contained in the very little space that it inhabits, so take your time with it. The more information that you can absorb and remember, the better your stories will be.


The setting of your story is more than just where the story takes place. It includes the atmosphere, time, and context as well. When describing the setting in your story, you want to include details that add something valuable to the scene.

You don't want to describe Jessica getting out of bed, walking to the bathroom, picking up the brush, combing through her long blonde tresses, pulling her hair back into a ponytail, then walking back to her bedroom. None of those play-by-play details matter. The only details that matter are that she fixed her hair without noticing the large vase of red roses sitting on her nightstand. That is what is valuable to the scene.

Leave out details that aren't important. Your readers are intelligent people. You don't need to give the details for every single aspect of the story. They can fill in reasonable blanks. In fact, they like to.

When describing your setting, use two or more senses to describe it. This helps bring the setting to life for the reader.

You can describe:

The way the flowers in the garden smell.

How good the pizza tastes.

The softness of the fabric as your character touches it.

The shrill sound of the train as your character hears it.

Sight. How pretty the roses look.

Tips for Creating

Is your setting:

  • Hot
  • Cold
  • Crowded
  • Barren
  • Wet
  • Dry
  • Jubilant
  • Sad
  • Cozy
  • Unfriendly
  • Fun
  • Boring


  • Familiar
  • Strange
  • Beautiful
  • Ugly
  • Home
  • Away
  • Loving
  • Unforgiving
  • Reminiscent
  • A bad memory
  • A good memory

Be careful not to give your readers statistics or facts about a setting, such as geography or population, presented in a boring, matter-of-fact way. Instead, use details so that the readers experience the setting with your character.

Look at the examples below.

Clarkston was a small town with only 800 residents. It sat at the foot of Morgan's Mountain. Every winter when the snow melted off Morgan's Mountain, the Blue River flooded. Eleven out of the past twenty years, Clarkston flooded, and some of the citizen's lost their homes. With that kind of history, only the most devoted residents stuck around. Most of them moved downstream, past Morgan dam after it was built six years back.

This paragraph was filled with way too many statistics and facts. It's boring and uninteresting. Not to mention, it tells way too much and doesn't do anything to show the reader the setting. Instead, bring the facts and figures to life with interesting details instead of boring statistics.

There was never a wait to do anything in Clarkston, not even to get through the town's one stop light. It blinked yellow all the time, except for when the town had its annual Christmas Day Parade and all the former residents came back to take part. Who could blame them? That's when Clarkston was most beautiful, framed by the snowcapped Morgan Mountain and alight with twinkling lights that reflected off Blue River. If that weren't enough to melt the hardest of hearts, the smell of fresh apple pie wafting from Mel's Bakery would surely make you fall in love with the town.

Kelly surveyed the crowd around her as the floats started to roll down Main Street and boats on the Blue River sounded their horns in celebration. New and familiar faces smiled at her as she made her way closer to watch. It was hard to believe that in just a few months, this same street would be submerged under the rippling water of the Blue River as it once against spilled its banks. The Spring Flood was almost as much of a tradition as the parade itself, but not even a handful of these people around would be here to see it. Not that she blamed them. A lot of her friends and family had moved downstream of Morgan Dam after losing everything they owned one too many times. But she couldn't leave. To her and a few others, this was the only home they ever wanted.

Want to learn more? Take an online course in How to Write a Short Story.


A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. -Jane Burroway

The plot is what happens. It's your storyline. It's the action in your story. Everything you write in your short story will be part of the plot. The plot includes that first paragraph, the conflict, the climax, and the resolution. Without a plot, you quite simply do not have a story.

There are elements common to every plot. You can create a plot without knowing these elements; however, learning them will help you to create stronger, more interesting, and compelling stories.

  • Explosion or "Hook." An attention-grabbing event or problem that grabs the reader's interest and compels them to keep reading.

  • Conflict. The conflict in a plot is either the character versus their self or an external something or somebody.

  • Exposition. The exposition is any background information needed for seeing the characters or current events in context. Simply put, it's information from past events that needs to be revealed in the story to explain the context.

  • Complication. The problem(s) that keep the character from their intended goal.

  • Transition. You can use images, symbols, or dialogue to join paragraphs and scenes together to make them seamless.

  • Flashback. When one of your characters or the narrator remembers something that took place before the story began.

  • Climax. The point of the story where the action reaches its peak.

  • Falling Action. The release of action after the story has reached its climax.

  • Resolution. When the conflict is resolved. The story ends shortly thereafter.
If you ever have problems trying to come up with a plot, try brainstorming ideas. Suppose you have a wife who just finds out her husband died. What actions can result from that situation? Make a list of possible actions, then choose one action from the list. Use that action to create another list of situations that arise from that action. Keep going until you develop your plot.


No matter what kind of story you write -- whether it's romance, science fiction, or mystery -- you need two things to make the story interesting to read. You need conflict and tension. Without the these two things, your short stories would read more like journal or diary entries that are factual, but uninteresting and boring.

Conflict is the problem or dilemma that your character(s) face from the beginning of the story. This conflict will resonate throughout your story and be resolved by the story's end. Conflict is NOT just a single incident that one of your characters experience. The story revolves around the conflict or dilemma.

In a mystery, the detective might have the conflict of solving a murder. If you're writing a romance, your main character might be fighting past hurts so that she can get past them and fall in love with a new man. Conflict starts your story and keeps it going. It can occur between two characters or between a character and an outside force or condition. See the table below.

Possible Conflicts Include a Character Against:

  • Another individual
  • Nature
  • Society
  • God
  • Himself or herself

Seven Rules for Creating Conflict

How to Create Tension

From the conflict, arises tension. Tension is what's created during the story. It gets the reader from "point A" (or where the conflict begins) to "point B" (or the end of the story). When you balance the opposing forces of the conflict and create tension along the way, you keep your readers intrigued by your story and reading through to see how your story ends.

By using the rules for conflict, you are also creating tension. Tension is created by the series of obstacles or events which arise from the conflict. However, each of these obstacles or events gets more serious and complicated in nature so that the character is forced to either find or accept a resolution. For example, in a romance novel, tension is created between the female main character and the leading male. As the story progresses, romance between them seems more and more inevitable, but she won't give in because of the conflict she's facing. (Usually, it's fear of being hurt by another man.) The tension between two characters in a romance story is the perfect example of the tension you need in all your stories, no matter what you write.

Suggestion: Even if you don't read romance stories, read one anyway to see conflict and tension working in a story. Tension in romances is easy to detect because it involves human emotion, passion, and sexuality, which we all can relate to. Apply that building tension that makes your readers anticipate what will happen next to all of your stories – no matter the genre.
Building to a Climax
Once the tension in your story heightens and reaches its peak, the climax occurs. This can occur at any point in the story, but as the quote above says, if it occurs too early, your readers will expect another climax. If it occurs too late, the story will get boring to your reader. In this article, we're going to learn how and when to build to the climax. We're also going to discover why a climax is a natural event in your story that will become a product of the tension you create.

If before or after you write your story, you take the time to list the conflict, then all the events that take place during the story, you can use that as a reference point to find where the climax should be. The climax is inevitable. It's the height of all tension, but it's also the beginning of the resolution. It is different than the conflict because the climax is an actual scene. It is not merely a conflict or dilemma; it is the point where the conflict or dilemma finally plays out and then leads the reader to the resolution.

Let's dissect a romance story to actually see how the conflict presents the tension, then how the tension grows until we reach the climax.

Jane meets John through a mutual friend. He shows his interest in her, but she greets his flirtations with rudeness and indifference, as she thinks to herself that he's as arrogant and callous as the past men in her life. John wants one date with her to sweep her off her feet; Jane is seemingly offended by his forwardness.

This is the conflict or dilemma. It's Jane against John and men in general.

When Jane's car breaks down on the side of the road, it's John who stops to help her. She smells his cologne as he leans under the hood, notices his good looks and his gentle way of speaking. He even makes her laugh with his silly jokes. She's unaware she's flirting back with him until he offers her a ride to the part store so that he can get the part to fix her car. He suggests they get dinner while they're in town. Jane remembers herself and turns cold again, telling him it's safer to go with him than to sit on the side of a desolate road, but they would not have dinner together.

This is the first sign of tension. It's showing that Jane does want to accept the offer for a date, but that she's afraid. As the story is written, her attraction to him is revealed just a little.

They talk on the way to the parts store and she learns he's lived alone for five years. He talks about his wife who passed away and his teenage daughter he's raising alone. Jane feels empathy for him and the tale endears him to her a little more. She softens, touching his arm as he talks about the tragedy he went through and starting to like the man. He says he'd love to find a woman to settle down with and have more kids. Now he's ready. She gets cold again and scolds an invitation for dinner again a few minutes later.

The tension is increasing because obviously, Jane is interested in him too, but something is holding her back. Although we realize the conflict of this story revolves around Jane being afraid of men, we still don't know why. Since we want to know why, we keep reading to discover that and to see if John and Jane finally get together.

He keeps talking and, despite herself, she likes him. When they get out of the car at the parts store, she wipes grease off the tip of his nose. He leans down and kisses her. She kisses him back. John pulls her to him and suggests they get the part, then start that date. Jane looks at his face and turns him down. She can see he's angry with her, but he doesn't say anything.

At this point, there's not much more that can happen. It's clear she likes him as much as he likes her. It can't be shown anymore than it is. Something has to happen to show why she keeps turning him away. If it's not shown, John is going to get angry and lose interest. What person wouldn't? More than that, the reader is going to lose interest too.

That brings us to what happens next.

They get back to fix her car right as it starts to rain. Even though this is a clichéd climax, let's use it because it really highlights the point of the climax. He's more attracted to her when she gets out of his car and stands beside him while he fixes hers. She likes the way his wet clothes cling to him. When they kiss again and he informs her that she has to go out to dinner with him, once again she pulls away. She tells him she will never have dinner with him. What's more, she tells him that she finds his aggressiveness to be disgusting and a big turn off. He knows better because of how she kissed him, so he gets angry at her, thinking she's playing games. Through their argument, it's revealed that Jane avoids men because she can't have children. She informs him that she will not have dinner with him. Ever. She doesn't want a relationship in which she'd have to be reminded that she can never have kids.

This is the climax. This is the point where the tension between the two characters is so great you could slice into it with a butter knife. It highlights the conflict and it brings everything to a head. However, it does not solve the conflict! Using the example above, Jane does not agree to dinner during the climax.

The climax in your story comes at the point where the tension can't get any greater. Resist the urge to keep the tension building. Resist the urge to add just a little more story to it. When the tension is so great that it has to "explode," let it.

Beware, however! Don't write the climax too early in your story. You wouldn't want to reveal the fact that Jane avoided men because she couldn't have kids any earlier in the story. It might be tempting to add that in during their ride to the store. It would seem the perfect point since he was talking about having children. In real life, she might have revealed it then. But this is fiction, not real life. Although you want your story to seem real, you have to add in the drama to keep readers interested.

Remember, the fact that Jane can't have children is the reason for the conflict. It's why she pulls away from him; it's the reason the tension exists. Without that fact, she would agree to date him because she's attracted to him from the very beginning. If you create the climax too soon, you've ruined your chance to build tension (John and Jane wanting each other, but her resistance) and destroyed your climax. Your reader will lose interest before you get the chance to write another climax. Chances are, it won't be a good one anyway.

The climax is the point where the tension is at an all-time high and the conflict becomes essentially a crisis for the character.

It's only then that you can move toward the resolution.
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