Narrative Elements

Setting



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,


Self Check

Ask yourself these questions to help you recognize and understand setting:


Example

"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.


Setting Tip

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.