Being a writer is the most magical job you can have without actually being a witch.
As writers, we create worlds that have never existed. Skies that have only ever been pink in your imagination are now magically pink in the mind of someone you’ve never even met.
That, dear reader, is why setting is so important.
Without setting your characters can’t live and breathe on the page. Without setting your readers can’t engage in the world you’ve created for them. And that is why setting is one of the most important elements of storytelling.
In this article, I will teach you how to write the most enticing and appealing setting you have ever created. Because if you’ve created characters that will live in the hearts of your readers, then they deserve a world just as memorable in which to live themselves.
We will answer the question ‘what is setting in literature?’, look at examples of authors who have perfected the art of grounding their readers into a story, and discover why setting is important in a story.
Then, of course, we will look at how you can use all that knowledge to ensure you create the very best setting for your book.
Let us start by exploring what setting is.
What Is The Setting Of A Story?
The setting of a story is where and when the story takes place. But in a lot of ways, it’s more complex than that.
Setting does not just include the immediate description of the room in which a chapter takes place. It encompasses so much more and can be broken down into three subcategories.
Three Main Settings In A Book
The three main types of setting are temporal, environmental, and individual.
Temporal Setting: This describes the era in which the story takes place.
If you’re writing a historical fiction novel, for instance, it’s important the reader knows the setting is Victorian London – not contemporary London – from the very beginning.
Environmental Setting: This is where you explore the larger geographical area and surrounding locations.
Is your book set in India or France? Where the book is set geographically makes a big difference to everything – from who the characters are, the decisions they make, and the action that takes place.
Likewise, if they are in France, is it rural or a city? A story set in Paris is going to be very different to one to a story set in a rural mountain community in the Pyrenees.
Individual Setting: This is where you get down to the nitty-gritty, the specific location of the story and the details found there.
If the scene is set in someone’s house, what does it look like? What’s the décor like? The street? Can we tell who lives there by the contents?
In both fiction and non-fiction writing, creating a compelling setting is vital. It provides not only atmosphere and a backdrop for the story you are exploring, but it can also create a framework for you to explore themes in a much more visceral and engaging manner.
A book’s setting can also provide context about your characters’ social environment or pinpoint a time in history that provides extra context.
To explain this further, I’m going to use a few examples from different books and look at how the authors have used these three specific areas of setting to engage the reader.
Book Settings: Examples
It’s impossible to explain the importance of a book’s setting without looking at writing examples and seeing how authors have brought a scene to life.
Temporal Setting: Examples
As mentioned before, the temporal setting focuses the readers’ attention on the time in which the story is set.
It’s an important part of fiction, especially if you’re focusing on genres such as historical or saga. But even if you’re writing contemporary fiction, it’s always important to know when the book is set (for instance the world looked very different in April 2020 than, say, April 2019).
You need to place your reader where you need them to be, so they’re in the correct mindset required to empathise with the characters and the plot.
Below are two very different examples of the perfect use of temporal setting.
Sepulchre By Kate Mosse
Leonie returned her gaze to the Avenue de i’Opera. It stretched diagonally all the way down to the Palais du Louvre, a remnant of fragile monarchy when a nervous French king sought a safe and direct route to his evening’s entertainment. The lanterns twinkled in the dusk, and squares of warm light spilled out through the lighted windows of the cafes and bars. The gas jets spat and spluttered.Sepulchre by Kate Mosse
The setting described here places us in a specific time and place. The author has used references to the surroundings that can only mean the characters inhabit a specific time in history. In this case, Paris in 1891.
As authors, it can be increasingly easy to use the ‘cheat’s’ way out, and simply add a date to the top of the page.
But by remembering the old ‘show don’t tell’ adage, and adding specific details to your passage, you can really place the reader at the heart of the story during a time you really need them to experience.
In contrast, take a look at how the next author tackles a sense of time and place in a more current day example.
Summerwater By Sarah Moss
The holiday park is asleep, curtains drawn, cars beaded with rain. The log cabins, she thinks again, are a stupid idea, borrowed from America or maybe Scandinavia but anyway somewhere it rains less than Scotland, when did you see wooden buildings anywhere in Britain? Turf, more like, up here, stone if you’ve got it, won’t rot. And they don’t look Nordic – not that she’s been but she’s seen the pictures – they look dated, an unappealing muddle of softening wooden walls and cheap plastic windows, the sort of garden shed you’ll have to take down sooner rather than later.Summerwater by Sarah Moss
This, in stark contrast to that of Mosse’s text, takes the reader to a rainy modern-day Britain. The description of materials, and use of language (even the stilted inner monologue) is much more contemporary.
We’ve looked at time and place, now let us discover environmental location.
Environmental Setting: Examples
Environmental setting is one of the most commonly understood and easily achievable of the three most frequently used setting sub-categories.
By setting a book in a familiar location, the author can evoke a strong sense of place and can be relatively certain that the reader will feel a similar sense and understanding of the environment the character is experiencing.
A certain setting allows the author to develop characters further, because certain environmental factors will influence who they are and what they do. This helps readers recognise familiar surroundings and empathise with the characters.
Take, for example, the many romance books set in places like Cornwall.
When a reader picks up a book with Cornwall scenes on the cover, they instantly know to expect beach locations, cliffs, and seagulls soaring over the sea. They will be able to picture the location automatically, allowing the author to focus on the drama unfolding, rather than worrying about building an unfamiliar world from scratch.
But you don’t need to set a book in a real-life location to have the reader fully understand or appreciate the story.
You do, however, need to anchor them with something that feels familiar or understandable. Using physical factors such as a glittering sea, snowy mountain peaks, or a thick dark forest is enough to place the reader in that location without giving it a Google maps pin.
Amazing examples of how environmental setting can be used to reinforce themes and emotions can be found throughout literature, but J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is one of the finest.
And the contrast between Bilbo- the main character’s- home (The Shire) and the place he must reach (Mordor) is what drives this story of good and evil forward.
The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien
Tolkien described the Shire as a “small but beautiful, idyllic and fruitful land, beloved by its hobbit inhabitants.” With landscape including downland and woods like the English countryside, and far from the Sea (Hobbits are fearful of the Sea), it’s easy for the reader to imagine a land not dissimilar to their own, despite the characters being far from anything they recognise as human.
The Hobbit’s first paragraph is simply a description of where Bilbo is:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbithole, and that means comfort. It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tubeshaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors.The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien
This type of setting gives an author the perfect tools to express mood, theme and tone to a reader. The Shire (and the little houses in it) is created to show a sense of comfort, familiarity, home, stability. The setting mirrors its inhabitants.
Contrast this with the descriptions of Mordor:
Mists curled and smoked from dark and noisome pools. The reek of them hung stifling in the still air. Far away, now almost due south, the mountain-walls of Mordor loomed, like a black bar of rugged clouds floating above a dangerous fog-bound sea.The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien
As soon as the author says “one does not simply walk into Mordor” the reader knows instantly, thanks to this visceral setting description, that the main character’s journey will be perilous. Leaving the comfort and greenery of home to face the darkness and fear of Mordor, will not be easy.
Ask yourself, if Tolkien had not described Mordor as such, would the reader have been as invested in Bilbo’s quest?
Individual Setting: Examples
Individual settings are the specific places an author will chose to set their scenes. It’s the main location in which the reader will be immersed and where most of the action takes place.
These settings could range from a school common room, a house, or even a specific bench by a riverside.
Individual setting is where an author can have the most fun with detailed and sensory descriptions. Choosing a geographic location will build a framework, but the intricacies of each individual setting will paint each picture in all its glorious detail.
- The splinters on the wood of the bench that pinch at her skin as she tries not to cry.
- The sound of the creaking floorboards as he creeps through the draughty abandoned house.
- The scent of the flowers as she runs hand in hand through the garden with her first love.
- The way the streetlights dance over the pavement as he stalks the streets looking for his next victim.
It’s these small details that add depth to your characters emotions as well as levity to the themes you are hoping to portray.
Take for example, the following quote:
The Mercies By Kirian Millwood Hargrave
Beside the fire there’s a stack of white heather drying, cut and brought by her brother Erik from the low mountain on the mainland. Tomorrow, after, Mamma will give her three palmful for her pillow. She will wrench it apart, stuff it earth and all into the casing, the honey scent almost sickening after months of only the stale smell of sleep and unwashed hair.The Mercies by Kirian Millwood Hargrave
This excerpt uses individual setting and description to evoke deeper understanding of the character and the life she lives. We know straight away this isn’t a businesswoman in modern day Manchester.
It doesn’t tell us where the house is geographically, but it describes enough about the immediate setting at hand for the reader to fully understand and appreciate the character’s struggles.
How To Write A Setting
You now have all the components you need to be able to create a strong and effective sense of setting in your novel, but how do you take all those components and knit them together to create a natural backdrop for your story?
Just like everything in this creative world, this takes time and practise.
It also takes planning and plotting – and lots of creativity.
The best way to ensure you have effectively used setting in your novel is to sit down and ask yourself some fundamental questions.
- How does the setting initially look?
- What other senses does it evoke?
- What does your character think of it?
- How does it affect the character’s life?
- How does it mirror their personality or predicament?
- What aspects of the setting are important to mention, and which will take your reader away from the action?
All these concerns can be tackled by remembering two things:
- Use all five senses
- No info dumps
Let’s explore these further…
Use All Five Senses
We all live in the real world, and that means we experience it via the senses we have.
There are five senses, and most people use theirs to truly experience the world around them. As a writer you need to do the same.
Take a look at each of the different setting techniques and break them down by sense. Every single sense can help heighten an area of each setting structures.
Use sense of smell to boost your temporal setting, such as the smell of coal and smoke in the air in London during ‘The Great Smog’, putting your reader at the very heart of a specific time in history.
Use the sense of hearing to describe the sound of the owls in the trees and the rustling of the leaves and creaking branches as your character walks through the deep dark wood in the middle of the night, expanding the environmental setting.
Use your sense of touch to describe the smoothness of the rock in your protagonist’s hand as she rubs away at the precious gem her mum once gave her as a child, using individual setting to deepen the sense of emotion within your character.
Describe what the character can see as they step into the funfair. The bright lights, the merry go round, the gaudy colours, the crowds of people. This helps expand the environmental setting.
It’s always useful to use taste when describing a scene involving food, but what about enhancing the individual setting and describing something most people don’t normally put in their mouths?
Imagine the tang of the sea air on his lips as he arrives at his grandfather’s Cornish hut. The breeze tastes of salt, mossy rocks, and blood. A sentence like that is sure to heighten your reader’s curiosity!
Avoid Info Dumps
And lastly, the biggest mistake any writer makes when it comes to getting their story’s setting right, is getting carried away and spending five pages describing the way the flowers grow around the entrance to a character’s cottage.
I know it’s fun, but please don’t do that (unless you have gone back in time two hundred years and your readers have magically grown a longer attention span).
Modern readers like action and momentum. We are used to television, to social media, to short, quick fixes. So, try not to dump all your description in one place as that will take your reader out of the story and action.
As you set your scene, remember we don’t need long winded paragraphs describing each and every aspect of the surroundings before we even hear the voice of our protagonist. Instead, we should be experiencing the surroundings naturally along with your characters.
If you want to make sure that everyone knows there are roses around the door, describe the smell as she looks for her keys. Maybe she picks one, or better yet the second character you introduce plucks a flower and hands it to her.
This technique ensures you are still painting a scene while also keeping the story moving forward.
Feel Your Way Through
As the famous saying goes, ‘my best piece of advice would be to never listen to advice’.
Why would I say that at the very end of an article full of advice? Simple, take everything you read with a pinch of salt and use your intuition as a writer. Listen to your gut.
You don’t have to use all five senses in every single paragraph. You don’t need to beat your reader over the head with a million descriptions to put them right in the middle of the action. Every page doesn’t need an entire paragraph full of setting descriptions.
Setting should feel so effortless that you have to specifically look for it.
It should emphasise the intricacies of your characters and themes without taking control of the book. It’s the highlight you add to a rich and considered plot. It’s the colour that makes your story pop. It should never be obvious.
Essentially, setting is your crowning glory. Make sure you treat it with respect. It should always be the silent shining star that guides your reader through the story – so subtle that you can’t quite place what it was that made that image in your mind so clear, but strong enough that it makes its mark.
If plot is what makes readers keep reading, and characters are what makes a book memorable, then setting is the cushion on which they both sit upon. Without the right setting your characters will fall and your action will wilt away.
Make sure your setting takes a simple story and coats it in the glaze that will make it shine, because it’s that polish which will make your book stand out from the rest of the books on the shelf.
Wherever that may be.
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