What is it?
The setting is the environment in which a story or event takes place. Setting can include specific information about time and place (e.g. Boston, Massachusetts, in 1809) or can simply be descriptive (eg. a lonely farmhouse on a dark night). Often a novel or other long work has an overall setting (e.g. a Midwestern town during the Depression), within which episodes or scenes occur in different specific settings (eg. the courthouse). Geographical location, historical era, social conditions, weather, immediate surroundings, and time of day can all be aspects of setting.
Why is it important?
Setting provides a backdrop for the action. Think about setting not just as factual information but as an essential part of a story's mood and emotional impact. Careful portrayal of setting can convey meaning through interaction with characters and plot. For example, in Jack London's Call of the Wild, the setting for Buck's adventures changes frequently, moving from a civilized environment to a wild and dangerous environment. These changes of setting are crucial to Buck's development as a character and to the events in the tale.
How do I create it?
To create setting, provide information about time and place and use descriptive language to evoke vivid sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations. Pay close attention to the mood a setting conveys.
To portray setting in both fiction and non-fiction,
Refer specifically to place and time:
"In the early weeks of 1837, Charles Darwin was a busy young man living in London."—David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin
Provide clues about the place and time by using details that correspond to certain historical eras or events:
"Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each [man] carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost 2 pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away."—Tim O'Brien, "The Things They Carried"
(A short story about the Vietnam War)
Describe the inside of a room where a scene takes place:
"The walls were made of dark stone, dimly lit by torches. Empty benches rose on either side of him, but ahead, in the highest benches of all, were many shadowy figures. They had been talking in low voices, but as the heavy door swung closed behind Harry an ominous silence fell."—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Describe the weather and the natural surroundings:
"And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine."—Katherine Mansfield, "The Garden-Party"
Weave details about setting into the descriptions of action:
"During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher."—Edgar Allan Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher"
Self CheckAsk yourself these questions to help you recognize and understand setting:
- Where is it?
- When is it?
- What is the weather like?
- What are the social conditions?
- What is the landscape or environment like?
- What special details make the setting vivid?
"When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent streets. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness."—James Joyce, "Araby"
|Where is it?||In a middleclass neighborhood; I'm not sure yet where it is.|
|When is it?||Wintertime in the evening, during an era when it was still common to see driving horses—maybe the late 1800s.|
|What is the weather like?||Cold, and the night falls early.|
|What are the social conditions?||In this neighborhood it seems people mostly stay inside in the evening; the narrator is aware of "rough tribes from the cottages" nearby—probably members of a lower social class.|
|What is the landscape or environment like?||Dark and quiet, with a sense of heaviness that contrasts with the narrator's shouting and playing.|
|What special details make the setting vivid?||Sensory details: the violet color of the sky, the dim lanterns, the stinging cold, the ashpits' odors, the music of the horse's harness.|
When considering setting, look for descriptive words and phrases. The setting not only provides information about place and time but also is a powerful tool authors use to create atmosphere and make the story come alive.