Setting: An Overlooked Element of Fiction

Why do fiction writers choose a particular setting for their work? Ask a fiction writer and you will likely get one of these reasons:

  • I visited there on vacation and it was a magical place.
  • The setting enhances the story.
  • I love nature and the plot lends itself to an outdoorsy setting.
  • It’s one of the biggest cities in the country and people will identify with it.
  • I really didn’t give it a lot of thought.

It’s the last answer that should trouble any writer. Setting is one of the overlooked elements of fiction writing. Writers should consider carefully the setting or multiple settings for their story. Setting is where a story takes place, but it’s more than that. The setting grounds the story in time and place. It provides an orientation point for the story. Most importantly, when described well, the setting can function like a major character, giving more depth and meaning to the story.

There are two types of settings in fiction writing:

  • Real (examples include cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles)
  • Imagined (Hogwarts and Scott Turow’s Kindle County come to mind)

Here are some tips regarding setting:

  • Establish the setting early; it will give the reader a visual to orient her about the story.
  • Use all of the senses. You want the reader to see it, hear it, smell it, touch it and even taste it.
  • Don’t go overboard on details, especially when describing settings that are actual places. Everybody knows what Times Square looks like. Select details that help enhance the mood and the tone you are seeking to create.
  • Describe your settings in stages. Avoid the early information dump when describing your setting. Nineteenth Century writers could get away with that because there were no movies then, but it is just not done in contemporary fiction.
  • Make sure the setting aligns with the genre and the theme. In Gone with the Wind, Tara is not only the plantation owned by the O’Hara family. It represents the values of the Old South.
  • Use richly textured, specific descriptions.

When using an actual place, make sure to get the details right. It’s a good practice to visit the settings of your novels, although writers have penned credible novels on the basis of careful research.

Historical novels present special challenges when it comes to the setting. Writers not only have to describe a particular place, but the details must be accurate and reflect the housing, transportation and technology that was available at the time. A novel that takes place in the 18th Century cannot feature a character turning on a lightbulb.


Author Elizabeth George, in her book, Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, placed a great emphasis on setting. In her book, she discussed setting before plot because “setting explored to its fullest is not only part of character, it can also be the key to plot.” George identified several functions of setting. It creates atmosphere. “Setting not only promotes the reader’s understanding of what kind of novel he’s reading, it also establishes a feeling that the reader takes into the experience. Setting triggers mood as well.”

Another function of setting, George wrote, is to reveal character. “Through a character’s environment, you show who he is. Everything else is interpreted by the reader,” she wrote.

Setting can also serve as a contrast to an event. She gave the example of P.D. James’ novel, A Taste for Death, wherein a gruesome double murder took place in the hushed vestry of a church.

George also rejected the notion that you should write what you know when choosing a setting. Her novels are set in England and George lives in southern California. “What I believe,” George wrote, “is that your setting should be a place that you want to know about, a place you are interested in exploring, a place you want to describe, a place that resonates with you or a place that evokes a personal and intensely visceral response in you.”

She strongly recommends visiting the setting you have chosen and describes at length the details she records when she visits the setting she has chosen.

When used correctly setting should orient the reader to the story, support the themes and enhance the narrative, without getting in the way.

How do you go about selecting a setting for your story?



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