Setting in a story is something that tends to get shuffled around during the writing process. Many writers will begin with a general idea of the time and place from which they want to present their story, scratch out some quick and dirty exposition on setting early on so that their readers know where they are, and then power on to the good stuff—resonant characters, breakneck plots, and powerful themes. What new writers often don’t realize is that your setting, when crafted with passion and attention to detail, informs all of these things.
Setting in our own lives—the places we grew up, the societal cultures we’re exposed to, the world events taking place as we do our best to balance the struggles of day-to-day living—has a huge impact on who we are as people and the choices that we make. It’s no different in fiction. Whether you’re looking at a short story setting or the setting of a novel, the characters who populate your story world will be largely formed and informed by setting—the influences and mechanics of their everyday world.
What is setting in a story?
Once you have your characters, your next job is to find a place to drop them into. It’s important to note that when we say “place,” we’re referring to the setting: something much bigger than just their physical location.
Setting in literature is everything that includes immediate surroundings, geographical location, natural environment, time of day, season of the year, era in history, cultural perspective, and dialect. When done well, each layer of the setting you create brings you deeper and deeper into your story.
As you’ll see in the examples farther down, setting in a story directly affects everything in your story world: from the themes that you communicate in your work, to the tone and voice that your readers hear, to the people your characters begin as and who they grow into. Even in the same broad setting, different characters can have different relationships with the world around them, and that will inform the choices they make that power the events of the plot.
The link between setting and character
Sometimes you’ll build your setting around your characters; other times you’ll discover your characters by exploring the setting of your story. Everywhere you’ve ever been and every moment in time you’ve heard about or experienced contains the possibilities for a limitless amount of stories.
Let’s look at a popular setting for a wide range of storytelling mediums: New York City. Even people who’ve never been to New York can come up with a pretty good idea of what it looks like.
Now go deeper. You could take a few different roads here, but let’s go to New York City in the 1920s: where everything shines like the stars have fallen and are dancing debaucherously down the middle of Broadway. What kind of characters do you see in this world?
Go deeper. More roads are opening up to you. Who is your protagonist, and where do they spend their time? What sort of setting feels like home to them? Imagine that they’re a bright young thing in a jet rhinestone dress with a soft spot in the knees for boys who drive fast cars. Where is your story taking shape?
Now imagine instead that your protagonist is a thirteen-year-old kid with holes in his shoes. Unlike the golden dame with the Clara Bow lips who might as well be a million miles away, he’s black.
Suddenly our story is coming from a very, very different place.
You’ll notice that we didn’t say anything about where these two characters eat, sleep, or spend their time, but simply by describing who they are you’re probably getting an image of their respective settings in your head. Your story’s settings and characters are inextricably entwined. Even in the same general setting, different characters can have very different relationships with their time and place. The world in which your story is set will help shape the person your character was, is, and will become, and it is through their eyes that the reader gets the chance to live in it.
The three layers of setting
Once you have the basic foundation of this relationship between setting and character you can begin building your world from the ground up. Let’s look at what is setting and some of the elements of setting you’ll have in your story.
Time is a multi-faceted thing. Temporal setting refers to the historical period and the cultural and political struggles that were prevalent in that time period—for instance, the world war of the 1940s, or the Irish ethno-nationalist conflict of the 1990s—as well as the chapter of your character’s life, the season of the year, and the time of day—for example, a blustery autumn night at 11:57pm, three minutes before your protagonist’s sixteenth birthday.
Temporal setting can tell us a lot about the world your character lives in, their place in it, and can even give us hints as to what sort of conflicts they might be facing later on.
Environmental setting is the wider world of our story, not just naturally but also socially and politically. A character’s values, biases, and expectations can be a result of their natural world or their cultural one.
This type of setting might be in a glittering city by the sea, or high in the mountains in a little ski resort town. It might be a barren alien planet with an experimental new political system, or a shadowy winter wonderland just beyond the doors of an old wardrobe.
Whether your story setting is real or imaginary, it’s important to know how this place has shaped the lives of its people and what kind of obstacles it might put in their way.
These types of settings in a story are also excellent tools for communicating mood, theme, and tone with the reader. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings does this very well: certain environmental settings like the Shire are deeply associated with all the comforts of home, family, and stability. Other settings, like Mordor and Mount Doom, impart a completely different feeling of darkness and despair.
Individual settings are the specific places where your story is happening: the settings where the reader will see much of the action taking place.
Individual settings in a story could be in a library, in a shopping mall, on a bench in Central Park, or on the deck of a pirate ship. Some stories will have only one individual setting, but others will have many.
The individual settings are where you get to have a lot of fun with sensory detail. The way a room glows in the dying twilight, the way it smells after being abandoned for many years, the creaks in the old floorboards, and the feel of once-luxurious velvet worn down to bare threading all contribute to the intimacy with which your reader experiences your world.
Like the environmental setting, your individual settings can be used to create a sense of danger or safety, hope or despair, often in contrast and juxtaposition with one another.
5 powerful settings in literature
Some story settings are so distinctive and iconic that they’re just as memorable, if not more so, than the characters or the story itself. Sometimes these settings even play an essential role in the way the story unfolds—for example, the intriguing, treacherous, gaslighting castle in the story of Bluebeard and his wives.
On this settings examples list, you’ll probably be able to look at each one and know exactly which story it came from (although two of them do double duty as both setting and title, showing exactly how integral the setting is to the story). This is because they’ve been tightly woven alongside their characters within our story consciousness, and now we can’t imagine one without the other. Let’s look at some of literature’s more powerful, memorable settings:
A sprawling, shifting, faerie tale castle turned boarding school with its very own railroad line is a pretty good place to begin building a story. This magical marvel is said to be somewhere in Scotland, though its exact location is a secret hidden from modern technology.
In the opening chapters of the Harry Potter series, the protagonist shifts from the very safe, mundane, right-angled world of his aunt and uncle’s pristine and boring house on an equally pristine and boring street, to an extraordinary castle of dreams. This clever use of juxtaposition shows us that we’re in for something very special. Hogwarts as a setting and as a plot device clearly and succinctly slices the protagonist’s world into a “before” and an “after.” This contrast is a good thing to remember when crafting settings in your own work.
In addition to its use as a thematic device, this setting plays a major role in the plot on several occasions. Secret rooms, hidden doors, and shifting passageways all bring new elements to the story. Without this setting the story couldn’t exist.
2. Treasure Island
Treasure Island is a setting so integral to the story that it beat out the book’s original title, The Sea Cook, and soared to the literary classics hall of fame. Although historians know that piracy wasn’t nearly as romantic as contemporary audiences would like to think, it’s undeniable that this novel cemented the image of the high stakes treasure hunt into our literary archetypal archive. The setting of the novel played an enormous part in that.
Aside from being a wonderful coming-of-age tale that follows the young protagonist as he navigates an adventure of mutiny and morality, Treasure Island introduced many of the setting-specific tropes that would go on to become mainstays of the genre, like ferocious black-sailed ships, peg-legged pirates, and maps detailing the location of buried treasure.
Although the novel visits a few different settings from start to finish, it’s the titular Treasure Island that’s captured the imaginations of readers for decades. Much like a certain distinctive city apartment (which we’ll look at next), Treasure Island blurs the lines between fact and fantasy, between what had been real and what could be real if you peered closely enough.
3. 221B Baker Street
Very few street addresses have achieved such universal status as an unassuming London flat near a busy tube station. At the time of the original publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective series, Baker Street in London only went up to number 85; 221B was entirely fictional.
The apartment itself was never meant to be anything very extraordinary: a suite of rented rooms in a lodging house. Very little of the original text was given to the actual description of the flat—“cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows.” And, in fact, Sherlock Holmes’ adventures didn’t actually take place there; most of the time he and his loyal housemate were out scouring the mean London streets for baddies. So why did this one Georgian door become such a distinctive part of our cultural imagination?
Very likely for two reasons. The first, much as we saw when we looked at Hogwarts, above, comes from juxtaposition. Holmes and Watson go on wild chases and apprehend dastardly people doing dastardly things before coming home to a small, comfortable, welcoming apartment with a kettle and a sofa and a beaten up violin—not entirely different from what Doyle’s contemporary readers would have come home to at the end of their days. Often, 221B Baker Street was where the stories’ denouements would take place; a moment of reflection on the events of the plot. This allows the iconic setting to welcome both the characters and the readers to a sense of homecoming before the story ends.
The second reason is a clever one, and difficult to imitate: 221B Baker Street hovers just at the very knife edge of reality. It is a fictional place that did not, in any shape or form, exist… but it was so, so close to being real. So close that scholars have torn their hair out trying to tease out clues from Doyle’s work as to whether or not the address could have existed, and certain businesses have come to fifteen-year legal blows for the right to accept mail sent to 221B. You can see how, when creating fantastical settings in your own work, much of their emotional resonance comes from a place of truth and familiarity for your readers.
4. The Daily Planet
In today’s digital age, the romanticized chaos of a busy newspaper office seems like something left over from our grandparents’ age or an episode of Mad Men. But in 1940, when Action Comics #23 first gave us an inside glimpse of the world occupied by Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and their story-scooping colleagues, it represented a world of possibility.
The Daily Planet has become one of the most iconic architectural designs in comic book history, despite its revolving teams of ownership and editors-in-chief. It began with Superman and then spilled over into other comic book storylines as well, at one point being bought by Bruce Wayne of Batman fame. Showing our larger-than-life hero in a very human setting with very human limitations was a great way to explore character and relationships between characters. This is another example of effective juxtaposition between the magic and the mundane.
In addition to being a distinctive visual within the DC Comics world, it was a setting where many of the story world’s characters came together. It was a place where new characters were introduced, new relationships were formed, broken, and reformed in new ways. Being that it was also a controlled environment much like a 1940s version of the internet, it was also used to convey information both to other characters and to the reader. This is an example of how a well-chosen setting can serve the plot in practical, functional ways.
5. Wuthering Heights
Read any study on Wuthering Heights and you’ll see scholars adulating the gothic, windswept beauty that this iconic setting contributes to Emily Brontë’s famous novel. While Wuthering Heights is actually the name of a house within the story, the setting encapsulated by the title is so much more: the misty moors, the sparse hills, the shadows run through with hard edges and thorns, the rotting foundations of the house and its land that serve as an undercurrent to the untamed passions that carry the plot.
Rather than being a direct plot device like the Daily Planet, the enigmatic beauty of Brontë’s setting seeps into every moment of the story. Wuthering Heights shows the raw power of the natural landscape as a direct parallel to the ragged, stripped-down power of barely contained love—both much darker and more dangerous than some other stories would have us think, and all the more beautiful and awe-inspiring because of it.
The setting in this classic novel is a wonderful study in how a well-crafted setting can completely change the tone of a story, and may even lead your characters down roads you did not expect.
How to create dynamic, compelling settings for your story
Now you’ve seen the three layers of setting in a story: temporal setting, environmental setting, and individual settings. You’ve also learned about some of the most distinctive settings in literature and what it is about them that makes them work so well. Now it’s time to apply all of that to setting in your own work.
1. Look at time periods, seasons, and stages of life
First, decide what time your story is set in. This is super important because your temporal setting informs every other influence in your character’s world. A young woman living in contemporary times will have a very different relationship with the people around her, with her finances, with her aspirations, and with the way she presents herself than a young woman living, say, at the turn of the 19th century.
Likewise, a child growing up in the great depression of the 1930s will grow to see the world in a different way than a child growing up in the technological boom of the late 1990s.
Sometimes your story might pass through different time periods. This might be because you follow your characters throughout an entire lifetime, spanning several decades, or it might be that you follow two or more different characters living in different periods of history. This technique is marvellously effective when done well, but it’s essential to thoroughly explore the unique benefits, challenges, and stigmas of each time period since these will all affect your characters in different ways. Write them down and think about how each character might respond to each challenge.
2. Look at your story’s environmental landscape
Once you know when your story is set, look at how the environment of your story world is going to shape your characters. As we saw when we looked at New York, above, the same broad space occupying the same time can still have many different faces.
Look at the natural landscape of your story. As we explored in Wuthering Heights, the natural world is something that is integral to your characters, sinking into their bones until it becomes a part of them.
This can be practical as well as thematic; for instance, a character living at the seaside in a thoroughfare for tropical storms will have a very different relationship with the world around them than someone living out of a cardboard box in a deserted alleyway—although both of these circumstances present their own unique set of challenges.
Conversely, someone living in a comfortable country manor house will see the world around them in their own unique way. It is your job as a writer to intimately know the landscape of your story, the relationship it has with your characters, and how that relationship may change over time.
3. Create unique individual locations
Now that you’ve explored your character’s relationship with their wider world, you can look at the role more intimate spaces play in your story. These can be things like a favourite café, a modern office with a picture window looking out over the skyline, or a dusty old wine cellar humming with barely-concealed family secrets.
This is where precise details become your lifeblood, as they contribute to the tone of the story, its mood, theme, and even plot. They can help you tell the external events of your story, as well as explore the internal workings of your characters’ memories, fears, and hopes.
A well placed setting detail can be an excellent tool for foreshadowing, and very often the characters’ perceptions of the individual settings will inform their choices in the story. For example, if your protagonist avoids a certain room of the house because it reminds them of a deceased family member, that relationship may affect their behaviour and the choices they make moving forward into the story. If your character goes up to their attic looking for an old toy from their childhood, only to stumble upon a box of old letters that launches them into the events of the plot, the entire story will unfurl because of the character’s experience with one particular individual setting.
In thrillers and mystery novels, settings often play a major role in the choices made by the characters. If you have a scene where a character is in danger, have them explore their immediate surroundings. Anything can be a weapon, a means of protection, a way out, a way to turn the scene towards a new direction. In martial arts, students are taught to use their surroundings and look at them in new ways. It’s the same in storytelling.
In your own work, make a list of the specific individual settings that are going to play an important role in your story. Then write down as many details as you can that make the setting feel alive, and—most importantly—what these details mean to the characters who live in their world. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about your characters from something as simple as an empty room.
Setting sharpens the world of your story
The three layers of our story’s setting are what brings the story to life. Well-crafted setting details can give you clarity on who your characters are and why they do the things they do, what direction they need to go in, and how they may change over time. By creating a vivid world for your characters to live in—whether that’s their wider world or a smaller, more intimate space—you give your reader a way to live in that story world with them.