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Three different ways to think about setting in literature

What is the setting of a story? Put simply, it’s the place and time in which things happen. But setting can be much more than the spatial and temporal aspects of a narrative.

Why is setting important in literature?

You’d think that setting is like the theme of a story—something that simply arises as the story unfolds—but it can actually go so far as being a character unto itself. It can be more than just the backdrop, and while a picture paints a thousand words, you don’t necessarily need a thousand words to paint a picture. You can start out with a whole metonymical intro about two Italian households that are both alike in dignity, or you can pull a Samuel Beckett and simply say, “A country road. A tree. Evening.”

Either way, in so many words, you will have helped the reader get a feel for the mood of the story, which in turn helps them imagine the world they just entered and stay longer in it.

So what does setting mean in a story, exactly?

It’s a somewhat complex literary concept with more than one definition. There are a number of ways to think about what setting means: what it comprises, whether or not it’s interchangeable, and what it brings to the story.

What it comprises. Setting can mean each of these components or the sum of all of them:

Place. Geography (land masses, oceans); landscape (mountains, valleys); urbanization; indoors/outdoors; Earth, outer space, or a fictional location

Time. Daytime or nighttime; the past, present, and/or future

Culture. Diversity, wealth (or lack of), progress (or lack of)

Change. Eventual (seasons, town construction) or sudden (a thunderstorm)

Going back to the picture analogy, it depends on how much you zoom in. How much detail is visible to the reader? And how much do these details (or the lack thereof) affect the way characters think and act?

Whether or not it’s interchangeable

Deep in the Hundred-Acre Wood

Where Christopher Robin plays

You’ll find the enchanted neighborhood

Of Christopher’s childhood days

Although the Hundred-Acre Wood is an iconic setting, it’s possible that the stories of anthropomorphic teddy bear Winnie-the-Pooh and friends could be transplanted to any other setting and still work, making the Wood a sort of backdrop. A setting is more of a backdrop when you’re conveying it vaguely to give it universality and timelessness.

On the other hand, Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl has what’s called an integral setting since the narrative is situated squarely in 16th century Tudor England.

What it brings to the story

Now we’re entering award-winning territory. Many authors are praised for their capability to create a setting with heaps of believability, eccentricity, or relatability. When you define the environment, create a culture, spell out rules and laws, and basically establish a whole world, you’re on the right track.

Let’s do a world building exercise.

Picturing a setting can be difficult, even for wordsmiths, which is why you need to work extra hard to know all the details of your setting. Let’s start by covering every single aspect. Too many words about setting can actually alienate your reader, so eventually we’ll stop expanding your world and pare it down to your preferred level of detail or the level of detail that your story necessitates.

Begin by searching Google or Pinterest for a picture that somehow represents your story. Out of the billions of images and illustrations on the internet, there’s bound to be at least one that matches the tone or mood that you’re going for.

When you’ve found your picture, think about why it called out to you, and try to answer the following questions:

  • What’s the tone of your story?
  • What would you absolutely want to see in the world of your story? Visualize its geographical features, qualities, weather. Populate it with as few or as many beings as you like, and think about what those beings look like and how they behave.
  • What’s the nature of your hero (or antihero)? Where do they live? How do they dress?
  • How would your protagonist interact with the world? What is their relationship to it and the people around them?

As you build on the tone of your story, try finding more pictures to create a setting board. These are the following you may want to find:

  • People who look like your characters (physical features, outfits, etc.)
  • Furniture, houses, buildings, etc.
  • Evocative art pieces

Hopefully this simple visual exercise will help you envision your setting more clearly.

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It’s very easy to get wrapped up in character and plot that we forget the world they’re ensconced in. You don’t have to be able to answer every question about your setting, but grounding yourself in visual cues will help you give your reader a story to remember.

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