Recently, I led a mini-lesson in setting for the Book Revision Lab. I love writing setting, but I do so from instinct. In preparing for the lesson, I realized that beyond an awareness that setting is meant to draw the reader into the world of the story, I hadn’t really considered its function in a methodical way. I turned to some craft books for help (see resources below) and came away with an increased appreciation for what setting can provide.
First, a definition: Setting is the environment in which your fiction or memoir takes place. It establishes the time, place, and overall frame and context of your story. It’s time period, social climate, and customs. When done expertly, setting can:
- Connect the story’s elements
- Build meaning
- Elicit an emotional response in the reader
- Help readers visualize and invest in the story
- Reveal character
- Reveal theme
Setting and Genre
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to setting. How large a role it should play in your work depends on the type of book you’re writing and the specifics of your story.
- Setting as Character. If your setting involves an interaction between place and people, affecting the characters as much as they affect each other, then its role is crucial. Think Moby Dick.
- Setting as Destiny. Does your novel’s environment condemn your characters to a certain fate, as is often the case in science fiction or fantasy? Think The Hunger Games. Here, world-building is essential.
- Setting as History. Historical fiction writers also must rely heavily on setting to make an unfamiliar past come alive for the reader. Think Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
- Setting as Backdrop or Narrative Element. Perhaps you have a courtroom drama, where the courtroom can be located in any big city. Or perhaps your novel is about a close relationship, where the same dynamics would be at play whether the characters are in rural Tennessee or Chicago. If the situation, conversations, and action could occur in any number of places, setting can play less of a role.
Using Setting to Do More
You may find, as I did, that you aren’t availing yourself of some of the ways setting can be extra powerful:
- Reveal Character: How your characters respond to your setting will tell the reader more about them. What if your character finds a small rural town stifling and backward? Or instead, charming? That tells the reader something about the character’s attitudes.
- Show Emotion: Use setting description to establish mood. Choosing words that convey an emotional tone (ominous? joyful? frightening?) will deepen the reader’s connection to the story.
- Create Complication: Characters’ different responses to setting can set up conflict or tension and even action. Perhaps the setting feels welcoming to one character but terrifying to another: One wants to stay, while the other is eager to run away.
- Show Backstory: A setting in the past can have great significance to a character.
- Anchor the Reader: A sentence of description in the first paragraph or two of each chapter helps orient the reader to where they are in the time and place of the story.
A few takeaways:
- Setting description should be intentional and integral. There’s as much danger in providing too much as too little. Don’t load up on details just because you can.
- Distribute setting details in small amounts throughout your story to avoid slowing the pace.
- A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting: How to Enhance Your Fiction with More Descriptive, Dynamic Settings by Mary Buckham
- Technique in Fiction (2nd edition) by Robie Macauley and George Lanning