Defining Setting: A Comprehensive Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 11 min read


  1. What is setting in literature?
  2. How setting influences story
  3. Types of setting
  4. How to create a believable setting
  5. Setting vs. location
  6. Setting and character development
  7. How to describe setting
  8. Setting in different genres
  9. Examples of effective setting
  10. Common mistakes in setting description

Ever found yourself lost in the vivid landscapes of a book, or felt the chill of a haunted house in a horror story? That's the magic of setting in literature. It breathes life into the story, adding depth and dimension. But what exactly is setting, and why is it so important? Let's break down the definition of setting and explore its role in storytelling.

What is setting in literature?

The basic definition of setting in literature is the time and place in which a story happens. But it's more than just a backdrop. It's the world your characters live in, the air they breathe, the sights they see. It's the environment that shapes them, influences their actions, and ultimately drives the story forward.

Let's look at it this way: Imagine reading a book where the characters are just talking in a void. There's no color, no texture, no sound. Pretty dull, right? Now, picture the same story set in a bustling city, or a quiet, sleepy town. Suddenly, everything changes. The characters have a place to exist, a stage on which to perform their story. That's the power of setting.

Here are some important elements that make up the setting:

  • Time: When does the story take place? It could be a specific year, a historical era, or even a time of day.
  • Place: This is the geographical location of the story. It could be a real place like New York City, or a fictional one like Hogwarts.
  • Culture and Society: The societal norms, customs, and cultural background also contribute to the setting. For example, a story set in Victorian England would have a different atmosphere than one set in modern-day Tokyo.
  • Atmosphere: This is the emotional tone or mood of the story. A creepy, old house can create a spooky atmosphere, while a sunny beach might evoke a more relaxed vibe.

When you understand the definition of setting in literature, you begin to see how it shapes the story. Without it, the story would be like a play without a stage or a painting without a canvas. So, next time you dive into a good book, take a moment to appreciate the world the author has created. It's more than just a backdrop—it's a vital part of the story.

How setting influences story

Understanding the definition of setting in literature is only the first step. Now, let's discuss how setting actually influences a story. Just like salt in a dish, it might not be the main ingredient, but it can significantly alter the taste.

Setting can affect the plot directly. For example, a story set on a deserted island can revolve around the characters' survival. Their actions, struggles, and the entire plot are all dictated by their isolated setting. Without the island, the story would be completely different, right?

Moreover, setting provides a context that can shape the characters and their actions. Let's say you write about a character living in a dystopian future. This setting will influence their perspective, their struggles, and their goals. They might become a rebel fighting against an oppressive regime or a conformist trying to survive in a harsh world. In this way, setting doesn't just influence the plot—it helps define the characters themselves.

Setting also plays a significant role in creating mood and atmosphere. Ever felt the tension while reading a thriller set in a dark alley, or the serenity of a romance novel set in a serene countryside? That's the setting, working its magic. It can evoke feelings and emotions in readers, pulling them deeper into the story.

So, the next time you're reading a novel or writing one, remember: setting is not just a backdrop. It's an active element that shapes the narrative, influences characters, and sets the mood. It's a silent yet powerful storyteller. Without a well-defined setting, the story can feel incomplete or disconnected. So, give setting the attention it deserves—it can transform your story from good to unforgettable.

Types of setting

Now that we've explored the influence of setting on a story, let's delve into the various types of setting you might encounter or create. Just like a painter uses a variety of colors to make a painting come alive, writers use different types of settings to bring depth to their stories.

First up, we have the physical setting. This is the tangible world where the story takes place. It includes elements like geographical location, the surrounding landscape, buildings, and climate. For example, a story might be set in the bustling city of New York during a freezing winter, or in the tranquil hills of the Scottish Highlands.

Next, we have historical setting. This refers to the time period in which a story takes place. Whether it's the Victorian era, World War II, or the future, the historical setting can greatly influence the plot and the characters' actions.

Another important type of setting is the cultural setting. This involves the social, religious, and cultural background of the characters. For instance, a story set in a conservative society will have different norms, values, and conflicts compared to one set in a liberal society.

Lastly, we have the symbolic setting. This is a deeper, more abstract aspect of setting, where certain elements represent larger ideas. For example, a dark, stormy weather might symbolize turmoil or conflict.

So, when you're crafting your story, remember that setting isn't just about placing your characters in a location or a time. It's about creating a world that's rich, dynamic, and multi-dimensional. It's about using the setting as a tool to enhance your narrative and give it a unique flavor. After all, a well-defined setting can take your readers on a journey they won't forget.

How to create a believable setting

Alright, now let's talk about the steps to create a believable setting. It's an essential part of storytelling and when done right, your readers will feel like they're right there with your characters, experiencing their world. Let's break it down.

First, research thoroughly. If your story is set in a real place or time, you should know it inside out. Use resources like books, documentaries, and online articles to understand the climate, geography, architecture, culture, and history of your setting. Remember, accuracy is key to making your setting believable.

Secondly, use sensory descriptions. Don't just tell your readers what the setting looks like. Describe what the characters hear, smell, taste, and touch. The rustling of leaves, the aroma of freshly baked bread, the cool touch of a stone wall — these details can make your setting come alive.

Next, show don't tell. Instead of stating facts about the setting, weave them into your narrative. Let your characters interact with their surroundings and express their thoughts and feelings about it. This way, your readers can discover the setting through your characters' experiences.

Lastly, be consistent. If it's winter in one chapter, it can't suddenly be summer in the next unless time has passed or your characters have traveled. Maintaining consistency in your setting helps maintain the illusion of reality in your story.

Creating a believable setting isn't just about crafting a detailed backdrop for your story. It's about making the setting a living, breathing part of your narrative that shapes your characters and drives your plot. So, as you write, remember to give your setting the attention it deserves. Your readers will thank you for it.

Setting vs. location

So, we've talked about how to craft a compelling setting. But, what's the difference between setting and location? Aren't they the same thing? Well, not exactly. Allow me to explain.

Location simply refers to the geographical place where a story happens. It could be a city, a small town, a forest, a beach - you get the idea. It's the physical space your characters inhabit.

On the other hand, setting is a broader concept. It includes location, but it also encompasses the time period, the culture, the climate, and the atmosphere. Setting is the complete environment in which the story unfolds, affecting both plot and character development.

Let's use an example. If your story takes place in New York City, that's your location. But the setting? That could be New York City in the hustle and bustle of the 1920s, filled with jazz music and flapper culture. Or it could be New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, steeped in grief and resilience. The same location, but two very different settings.

In short, while location is a part of the setting, the setting goes beyond to include time and contextual details that give your story depth and meaning. So, when you're crafting your story, remember that the definition of setting is broader than just the physical location. It's the entire world your story lives in.

Setting and character development

Now that you've got a solid grasp on the definition of setting, let's talk about how it interacts with something equally important—character development. It's not just about picking a place and time; the setting can actually shape your characters in profound ways.

Think of it this way—people are products of their environment. Your character's surroundings can shape their beliefs, their habits, their likes and dislikes, and even their struggles. A character growing up in a bustling city might be street-smart and quick on their feet, while one raised in a quiet, rural area might have a deep love for nature and a slower, more thoughtful approach to life.

The setting can also help to illuminate your character's motivations. For instance, in a harsh, post-apocalyptic world, the main character's primary motivation might be survival. On the other hand, in a setting of royal courts and political intrigue, the same character might be driven by the desire for power or the need to navigate complex alliances.

Moreover, the setting can be a tool to reveal character backstory without resorting to explicit narration. For example, a character living in a meticulously tidy home with a plethora of books might hint at a love for order and knowledge, while a character from a small town where everyone knows everyone else might struggle to keep secrets.

So, while setting up your story's world, remember—your setting isn’t just a backdrop. It's a character in its own right, one that interacts with your characters, shaping them and propelling their development forward. And considering setting in this light can truly enrich your narrative and breathe life into your characters.

How to describe setting

Understanding the definition of setting is one thing, but how do you bring it to life on the page? When it comes to describing setting, it's all about engaging the senses, creating atmosphere, and making it serve your story.

First, let's talk senses. It's easy to think of setting description as just a visual thing, but your characters have five senses—use them! What does the air smell like? Is it the salty tang of the sea or the earthy aroma of a forest? What sounds fill the air? Is it the hum of city traffic, the whisper of wind through the trees, or the distant roll of thunder? What texture do things have? Is the ground beneath their feet rough and rocky or smooth and sandy? By engaging multiple senses, you make your setting more immersive and real.

Next, think about the atmosphere. The setting is a powerful tool for setting the mood of a scene. The gloom of a rainy day can underscore a character's sadness, while the cheer of a sunny park can amplify their joy. Don't just describe the setting—describe how it makes your character feel.

Finally, make your setting work for your story. If there's a looming castle in the background, maybe it's a symbol of the oppressive regime your hero is fighting against. If your story is set in a school, maybe its strict rules and high walls are a metaphor for your protagonist's struggle for freedom. The setting is not just a place—it's a part of your story's fabric.

Remember, describing a setting isn't about dumping a list of details on the reader—it's about painting a picture that draws them in. It's about creating a world that feels real and alive, a place where your characters can live, breathe, and tell their stories.

Setting in different genres

Once we understand the definition of setting, we can appreciate how it varies across different genres. The setting is not just a backdrop; it's a crucial element that shapes the story, characters, and themes. Whether it's a distant planet in science fiction or a haunted mansion in a horror novel, the setting adds a unique flavor to the narrative.

In a Science Fiction novel, for instance, the setting often ventures beyond Earth, exploring distant planets, futuristic cities, or post-apocalyptic landscapes. The setting in this genre often presents groundbreaking technologies or societal structures, forming a foundation for plot and character interaction.

Fantasy novels, on the other hand, often take place in magical realms or alternate universes. The setting plays a significant role in defining the rules of magic, culture, and creatures that inhabit these worlds. From the towering spires of Tolkien's Middle-Earth to the mystical alleyways of Rowling's Diagon Alley, the settings are integral to the plot.

For Mystery and Thriller genres, the setting often provides the eerie atmosphere and suspense. The dimly-lit alleyways, isolated islands, or quiet suburban towns are more than just places; they're woven into the mystery that needs to be solved.

Meanwhile, in Romance novels, the setting can serve as a catalyst for the love story. It could be a quaint small town, a bustling city, or a picturesque seaside village. Each setting offers unique opportunities for chance meetings, romantic escapades, and conflict.

In essence, the genre dictates the setting, and the setting, in turn, influences the plot, character development, and overall tone of the story. Therefore, understanding the definition of setting is essential in crafting a compelling narrative, no matter what genre you're exploring.

Examples of effective setting

Understanding the definition of setting is one thing, but seeing it in action can truly highlight its importance. Let's examine a few examples from literature where the setting does more than just paint a picture — it breathes life into the story.

In Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird", the setting of Maycomb, a small Southern town, is not just a backdrop, but a character in itself. It reflects the attitudes and values of its inhabitants, and provides context for the social issues that the story tackles. Lee's vivid descriptions of the town and its people create a sense of realism that adds depth to the narrative.

Another example is J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings". Middle-Earth, with its lush Shire, ominous Mordor, and ethereal Rivendell, is a setting that's intricately woven into the plot. The landscapes and cultures of Middle-Earth are not merely decorative; they shape the characters' journeys and influence the conflicts and resolutions.

On the more contemporary side, we have Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games". The dystopian nation of Panem, divided into districts with vast disparities in wealth and power, serves as a stark setting that underscores the themes of inequality and rebellion. The harsh reality of the setting is instrumental in shaping the protagonist Katniss Everdeen's struggle and growth.

These examples illustrate how the setting can contribute significantly to the narrative. It's not just about where and when the story takes place, but how these elements interact with the characters and plot. Remember, a well-crafted setting can make your story more believable and engaging.

Common mistakes in setting description

Now that we've seen some examples of effective setting, it's time to turn our attention to common pitfalls. Here are some mistakes that writers often make when attempting to define the setting of their story:

Over-Description: It's easy to get carried away with describing every single detail of a setting. However, excessive description can slow down a story and bore readers. Instead, focus on key details that add to the mood, plot, or character development. Remember, less can often be more.

Ignoring Setting: On the other end of the spectrum, some writers neglect the setting entirely. This can lead to a story that feels flat and lacks depth. Even if your story is driven by dialogue or action, the setting can add richness and context.

Using Clichés: A city shrouded in fog. A village that time forgot. These phrases may sound familiar because they are overused. Clichés can make your setting (and your story) feel generic. Instead, strive for unique and specific descriptions that make your setting stand out.

Forgetting the Senses: Setting isn't just about what you can see. Don't forget about the other senses. What can your characters hear, smell, taste, and touch? Incorporating these details can make your setting feel more real and immersive.

Static Setting: In real life, settings change. Seasons pass, buildings are built or torn down, people come and go. If your setting stays exactly the same throughout your story, it can feel unrealistic. Remember, your setting can (and should) evolve along with your characters and plot.

Avoiding these common mistakes will help you create a setting that is vivid and impactful. The definition of setting goes beyond just a place and time; it involves building a world that supports and enhances your story.

If you enjoyed this comprehensive guide on defining setting and want to dive deeper into world-building, don't miss the workshop 'Visual Development for Fantasy World-Building' by Kit Buss. This workshop will provide you with invaluable insights and techniques to create immersive and visually stunning settings for your fantasy stories. Take your world-building skills to the next level with this incredible resource!