Setting is the background against which you tell your story. At its most basic, setting includes the place and time of your tale — the where and when.
But to really nail setting and tap into its power to grip the reader and pull him into your world, you need to dig deeper.
You need to explore the …
Elements of Setting
When writing students first learn about setting, it’s usually presented as three main elements: time, place, and environment. That’s a good start and encompasses everything — just not in much detail.
We can unpack each of these building blocks of setting to uncover subcategories that, when properly developed, enrich the world you’re building and make readers feel like they’ve been sucked right into your story. Courtney Carpenter presented a list of the 10 top elements of setting at Writers Digest a few years back, and we’ll use that as our backbone below, as well as adding a few more to cover all the angles.
Here, then are the most common and potent elements of setting.
Locale: Where your story takes place … a rural farming community, the nightlife scene in Topeka, a Hollywood high school. Locale may be complex, encompassing multiple physical locations, but there will usually be one place that is central to most of your story.
Time of Year: The month or season in which your story takes place can have a profound impact on your plot and characters. People behave differently in winter, for example, than they do in summer, and so will your agonists.
Time of Day: At the level of a scene or when your story’s timeframe is compressed, time of day is an important consideration. After all, as the old saying goes, “Nothing good every happens after Midnight.”
Day of Week: Every day of the week has its own “feel” that can play heavy in your story. A normally moribund character, for example, might be downright giddy on Friday afternoon.
Time Span (or Elapsed Time): The time span covered by your story affects everything from level of detail to urgency and stress levels. The TV show 24 was famous for stretching a 24-hour period over a whole season, and the resulting action was both tense and intense.
Mood and Atmosphere: Mood and atmosphere can be influenced by other elements of setting, but they can be influencing entities as well. The clubhouse of a losing baseball team will have a much different feel than that of a winning squad.
Climate: Weather can be either transient or an overarching factor — or both — in setting. The soggy climes of the northwest will affect how characters approach their day-to-day lives, while a sudden thunderstorm in Iowa can present acute perils.
Geography: The physical geography of the location in your story can impact plot lines and character personalities. Mountains, lakes, oceans, deserts and all other sorts of landforms cause us to live and act differently than we would under other circumstances, and the same is true for your characters.
Architecture: Just like geography, man-made structures and infrastructures have a deep impact on all aspects of human life, and you can use that to your advantage in establishing your setting.
Era: The time period during which your story occurs will give it a distinctive feel and can also influence fashion and dialogues. Especially important in works of historical fiction.
Social/Political/Cultural Environment: Closely related to era and location, the social environment in your book directly affects its mood and the actions of your characters.
Population Make-Up: In the current vernacular, you might also call this one diversity. What is the make-up of the general population in your story, the ethnic and racial backdrop against which your tale is set? The answer will have far-reaching effects for your characters and, maybe, your readers.
Ancestral Influences: Just as some real-life people are heavily influenced by their parents and other family members, so too will some characters be guided by ancestral pressures, either long-held or more immediate — parents, grandparents, etc. If your story has a heavy family sway, those ancestral influences will definitely be part of your setting.
Population Scope: The sheer number of people involved in the background of your story is an important element of setting, too. A novel set in downtown Manhattan is going to be much different than a short story set on Beaumont, Texas, for example.
How to Nail Your Setting
Now that you know at least most of the elements that make up setting, how can you go about getting yours just right? There is no quick and easy answer, but these seven tips should help:
- Establish Your Time & Location: Not surprisingly, nailing your setting starts with picking the most basic parts — time and location. Figure out when and where your story takes place, and then you can flesh out the rest of your environment.
- Do Some Research: Once you establish your time and place, put some effort into researching those choices. Unless your story is set in your current (real) location during your own lifetime, you won’t be able to wing the rest of the details necessary to make your setting feel authentic.
- Pick Your Elements: While there are enough elements involved in fully specifying setting to make your head spin, the truth is that you don’t need to devote a huge amount of effort to all of them in every situation. For example, if your novel takes place entirely in a farming community, architecture will be of little consequence.
- Study the Vernacular and Dialects: You’re going to be writing dialogue between the people who spring from your setting, so take some time to figure out how they really speak to each other.
- Practice Writing Descriptions: Especially if you’re venturing into unknown territory in your story, it’s worth the effort to practice your setting skills. Character profiles can be helpful in getting to know your fictional peeps, and similar methods can be used to get in touch with your surroundings. Write an “essay” or two about your setting, and you’ll feel more confident as you begin to write for real.
- Use All Your Senses: Building a realistic setting comes down to making your reader feel like he’s been swallowed up by your world. To do that, you have to use all the tools at your disposal, and that means detailed descriptions using sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound, as well as more squishy spatial, emotional, intellectual, etc., considerations.
Drawing your readers into your world requires first that you understand that world and then describe that world effectively. Both take practice and hard work but are well within the grasp of diligent authors who heed the elements of setting.