Thursday, December 2, 2010

How Important is Setting?

Entire books have been written about setting. I’ve sat in numerous presentations at writing conferences and listened to successful authors, writing teachers and other professionals share their expertise on setting. Sometimes when I do my little posts about different aspects of novel creation I feel a bit of a fraud. I’m far from expert and am only sharing my feelings on how I create my novels and what things I consider in doing so.

When writing a fantasy novel, setting can be a character all in itself. The author strives to bring a world to life in a way that is believable enough to be possible. At least believable enough for the reader to imagine living in that alien place.
The setting of a novel should add to the mood or tone of the story. Is there a seasonal element? Is the weather as dark and brooding as the main character? Is the world cold and bleak? A few choice details about the weather or the landscape infer a serious, tense plot. Or does the description of the surroundings suggest a light, frivolous tone?
Weather isn’t the only factor to use in designing an intriguing setting. How might the interior of a character’s home lead the reader to understanding the character of the protagonist? Are the furnishings brand new, gleaming with lemon polish, or are they dusty antiques, mismatched and nonfunctional?
Don’t forget to use sensory description and a variety of it in setting. We experience the world through more than sight and hearing. Is there a taste in the air? Perhaps of burning stone and a smell of decay. Touch can evoke many emotions from the reader. Most people cringe when reminded of the sensation of a spider discovered crawling on the back of their hand. And don’t forget to vary the senses used in description.
When I read a book that pulls me into its world, I try and analyze what the author has done with setting to interest me. I carry a journal to jot down a descriptive word or verb I might want to use sometime. I especially like the settings that serve to foreshadow the story’s climax or the building of suspense.
Good writing is not entirely dependent on the setting but every successful novel uses the tool of a finely crafted time and place to complete their book.
How important is setting in your writing? Do you give it equal attention to character development? Has any novel captured your interest because of its clever setting?


  1. I recently finished reading Don't Fall Asleep by Laura Eno (am reviewing it Saturday) and your post made me think of it. Laura sets up different settings and each one evokes different emotions and visuals in the reader's mind. And the people who live in each setting are different, partly because of the setting.

  2. Thanks for giving an example, Helen. I look forward the reading your review.

  3. This is something I'm working on and feel I've done a much better job in the sequel to my book. (Of course, the first one took place entirely in space.) It's a balance - the setting must feel real and alive but without overloading the reader with description.

  4. Good point, Alex. I think space would be a challenging setting. It's been so many years since I had physics, I wouldn't know where to start.

  5. What an introguing idea that the characters can be settings themselves. I had not considered that.
    Sometimes an author's description of setting seems like filler, at other times it can transport you into a different world.
    I love good description and setting is important because without out the characters might as well be interacting inside a padded cell or whitewashed room!
    The opening chapter of Marcia Willet's The Children's Hour is great and also Arthur C Clarke 2001: A Space Odyessey when he describes those early humans :O)

  6. I have two settings in my book, Boston Ma and Southern California. Its a lot of fun because obviously the people are cut from two entirely different sets of cloth. This of course opens the door for additional conflict. Never a dull moment.

  7. Yeah, it's a work in progress for me. And I agree that it is really important to be able to be there, using all of your senses (something JK Rowling mastered).

  8. I can't remember the details, but I have strong memory impressions of the setting used in Roger Zelazney's Chronicles of Amber series.

    His was my first introduction to fantasy genre, so I think setting must be pretty important if that's the part that left the greatest impression on me :)

  9. Lots of great example of settings making a book memorable. I might have to check out a few of those I'm unfamiliar with.

  10. Setting is one of my favourite parts of a book. There's nothing worse than too much or too little of it - both stop a book from feeling real to me.

    Difficult to get it right - when I write, I tend towards over-doing the setting thing.

  11. I love the setting of McCaffrey's Pern novels - it's so well built. I struggle with describing the setting in my books - I don't like adding much description at all - but I'm getting better! :)

  12. I believe setting is a crucial component to a novel. Like you indicate, I think setting is a character-- certainly equal in importance to character in most cases. The setting is going to influence and play a major role in everything that happens to the characters in a story.

    An example I immediately think of is Huckleberry Finn where the Mississippi River is the main part of the story. Or The Jungle where life in the city and the setting of the meat packing plants is the main purpose of the story.

    A novel is supposed to transport us and if I'm going to be transported somewhere I like to know where I am.

    Tossing It Out

  13. Hello Tessa. I'm always afraid I under write the setting for my books.
    Arlee, those are great examples of setting in some classics.

  14. I admire those who create a fantasy setting - that's a lot of work!
    I was fortunate that I've visited all of the major cities featured in my books. I also used Google Earth for accuracy.

  15. Sounds like a terrific way to get the setting correct, L. Diane. I would love to visit London one day and a few castles across Europe to get the feel of living in such a place. It would be a great aid for placing a story in a medieval setting.