English 250 Fiction Unit: Setting

250Fiction TermsLit Analysis


Setting is one of the most neglected aspects of fiction; after all, it is merely where the story takes place, right? Right. But every aspect of writing should be carefully considered by the serious writer, in order to take full advantage of it. And setting is a tool a writer can use to great effect.

Because we are trying to convince a reader that our story really happened -- at least for as long as it takes them to read the thing -- having a convincing place for the story to happen in is vital. And consider how differently an deathbed scene would read if it happened in a stark, sterile hospital room compared to a lushly appointed bedroom full of warm candlelight with the smell of baking bread wafting in through the door. The words and actions and characters present could be exactly the same, but the scene becomes very different when it happens in different settings.


Time as an aspect of setting is something we sometimes overlook. But time is as important as place; New York of 2003 is a very different place from New York of 1723 or 3015. Different time periods have different looks and atmospheres, even if most of the buildings are the same. And even a few years can make a difference -- how has the New York of today changed from the New York of 2000? Not only has the landscape changed, but so has the feeling of being in that city.

Of course, what year it happens to be is not the only temporal aspect of setting to consider. How might the time of year change both the physical setting (snow, ice, less colour in the landscape) and the atmosphere (more people are depressed in the winter)? And what about the time of day? Even if it is not necessary to specify these things in the text of your story, you as the writer ought to know. These questions will affect the details you include in your descriptions, the behaviour or mood of your characters and various other things. Always consider what the time you've chosen means; what things result from it being that time and not some other time.

Setting is More Than a Place to Happen

The most obvious function of setting is to give your story a place to happen. All settings do that. But we already have some hints about other possible things a setting can do. Remember the difference between the deathbed scenes in a hospital room and a bedroom? Those settings are doing more than providing a location for events. They are adding atmosphere and mood, they are affecting the characters and maybe even influencing events. Setting can be subtle, but also quite powerful.

The Implications of Invented Settings

If you are writing fantasy or science fiction, you are probably going to be using invented settings, or imaginary worlds, at some point. For more information on worldbuilding in fantasy and SF, see the article Do-It-Yourself Setting. Because you've made everything up, you have a special task to make sure all aspects of your setting make sense and to consider all the implications of your imaginary world. For example, if you've chosen to give your world a red sun, what might this mean to the people living on the world? For science fiction, you have to consider what a red sun is in astronomical terms and how it would affect the planets and creatures orbiting it. For fantasy you can be a little more playful, but you still need to think things through. How might a red sun affect the way people see colour, for example? What magical or fantastical aspects might a red sun have? Would the colour red come to have some special significance, perhaps?

In his book Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, Crawford Kilian suggests that writers should think about the metaphorical implications that their choice of setting will have. He divides settings into two broad categories: demonic and paradisal. The idea is that a story about a world that is a metaphorical paradise being threatened by a world that is a metaphorical hell has a very different meaning from a story about a demonic, hellish world that is being turned into a paradise. Even if the basic action and plotlines of these two scenarios were essentially the same, the stories would have very different meanings, and what meaning a reader takes from them would largely come from what kind of settings are used. This is only one example of the metaphorical possibilities of created worlds. Can you think of others? If you are going to use invented settings, you should be able to think of many other ways to manipulate the "meaning" of a story by changing the setting in this way.

Possible Functions of Settings

Jack Hodgins lists seven roles for settings in his book A Passion for Narrative. Each makes more use of setting than the last, and the final role is truly the most memorable when it is used by a capable writer.

Generic: The setting is without unique features, implying that the story could happen anywhere. The problem with this is that all real places have their own cultural and physical characteristics and these characteristics influence characters. A generic setting will not seem real and may actually detract from the story.
Backdrop: The setting merely provides us with a way of knowing where we are and, though it may have unique characteristics, it does not affect the characters or action. It is a place, but it doesn't do anything.
Local Color: The story is flavoured by attention to the unique details of the setting, which may give the impression that the story could not have happened anywhere else. The writer may be tempted to make the setting entertaining without really giving it any significance.
Atmosphere/Mood: Setting can be used to set the mood or atmosphere for the whole story or novel. In addition, the settings of individual scenes may reflect the state of mind of the characters. For more information on ways the achieve this, see Get Moody: Evoking Atmosphere in Your Writing.
Affects Action and Character: Characters are more real if they have a historical and geographical context; the place where a person grew up will affect their attitudes and behaviour for their whole lives. For example, someone raised in a big city will think and act differently from someone raised in a tiny rural village.
Place as Character: One example of this is in the old "man versus nature" plot, where the main struggles the protagonist faces are with the environment. In this situation, the setting itself is the antagonist. In stories of this sort, changing elements of the setting would change the entire story. Can you imagine a story about a woman's struggle to climb a mountain unaided being set on the prairies? That story wouldn't work without a mountain, and so the mountain becomes a central character. The story's plot, then, is largely determined by its setting.
Metaphor/Symbol: The setting becomes symbolic of the theme of the story.

You don't want to spend too much time at first on figuring out exactly how your setting will function in your work. As long as you are aware of the possibilities offered by setting, you'll probably find that you can ignore the technical details while writing a draft or your story or novel. Things like atmosphere and metaphor often emerge spontaneously in the writing, which means you only have to decide what works and what doesn't when you edit. Don't force a role on a setting, but use your editing to make it stronger.

Adapted from http://teenwriting.about.com/library/weekly/aa111102c.htm