Setting (SEHT-eeng) is where (location) and when (time period) a story takes place. Together, these broad categories encompass geographic region, climate, date, time, and architecture, as well as facets of culture and society like language, politics, fashion, and cuisine.
Like plot and characterization, setting is one of the chief components of a fictional narrative. It comprises a story’s world, and it informs both backdrop and atmosphere. But setting is more than just a background. Characters move through and interact with their surroundings, so setting is often dynamic and sometimes becomes a character itself.
The Elements of Setting
Setting is typically established during exposition at the beginning of a text. That said, the setting often changes as the plot kicks into gear, so a text may introduce new settings or further develop an existing setting to demonstrate cause and effect.
Setting can be established through a myriad of elements, including but not limited to:
- Location: This encompasses categories as broad as planet or country and more specific locales, such as street, house, or even room. Location also involves geography or geographic region, including the different hemispheres and continents, as well as terrains, like a snowy mountain range or an arid desert.
- Date: Year, month, and day all affect the setting, from establishing seasons and holidays to other era-specific events, like wars.
- Time: Much like date, time affects the setting. It can indicate the availability of sunlight and play on common associations, such as 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. being the general hours of the workday. The passage of time—which also affects date—is an important narrative. Plots develop over time, making it a great indicator of change or progress. Setting can also influence the perception of time. A city might seem to move rapidly, whereas life in a small country town seems slower.
- Milieu: This encompasses the immediate physical and social environment that an event occurs or develops in. Milieu can refer to immediate contexts, such as job, neighborhood, and family, as well as broader social contexts, including social groups, community, cultural and social institutions, and public sentiments, beliefs, and crises.
In sum, setting is primarily comprised of time, place, and environment. Within these elements are numerous subcategories that can enrich a story with greater context or detail.
The Types of Setting
Just as there are several elements that constitute a setting, there are many different types of settings that writers can include in their works.
Backdrops vs. Narrative-Shaping Settings
Backdrop settings are just that—backdrops. They are vague and undefined, lending a timeless or universal quality to stories. Because backdrop settings are inconsequential, they have little effect on the overall narrative. This means the story can shift from one backdrop to another with its key themes and plot structure intact. Detectives series like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys often feature backdrop settings because these narratives focus on the protagonists’ ingenuity, the mystery, and the clues above all else. They can happen virtually anywhere.
In contrast, narrative-shaping settings are crucial to the story. Also called integral settings, these environments shape the narrative by impacting a range of storytelling elements, from theme to characterization to plot. Integral settings are usually described in thorough detail, factor into the narrative’s action, and influence or communicate details about the story’s theme, tone, atmosphere, and plot. C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia features a narrative-shaping setting, as this series could not be extricated from the fantastical Narnia without sacrificing major aspects of symbolism, theme, and plot.
Real vs. Fictional
Building a real setting often starts with a good map and extensive research because these settings feature actual locations that can be visited in real life. Real settings can be a boon for writers because they come with distinct geography, architecture, culture, cuisine, dialect, climate, etc. They can provide a greater sense of verisimilitude, since it’s easier for readers to imagine (or look up) a setting because it exists in the real world.
Although writers don’t have to imagine real settings whole cloth, they must take care to represent them authentically and accurately. One wrong detail could take local readers right out the story and jeopardize the writer’s—and the story’s—credibility.
Fictional settings require extensive worldbuilding. Anything goes—writers are limited only by their imagination (and their deadlines). They aren’t beholden to any rules that govern the real world, and because fictional settings are unfamiliar to readers, writers have creative carte blanc to perfectly tailor elements of the setting. This is exemplified by genres like fantasy and science fiction, which often feature worlds wholly unlike—or at least conspicuously different from—the real one. Of course, a fictional setting doesn’t have to be entirely fabricated; writers can blend aspects of the real world into their fictional setting. However, because readers can’t envision a place they’ve never seen, writers must describe these settings with clear, careful detail to aid the reader’s imagination and ensure authenticity.
Settings by Genre
Novels in the same genre often share characteristics. This list details common elements of setting in a selection of popular genres:
- Detective fiction is known for several tropes. In terms of setting, these include ostensibly perfect crime scenes, towns with substandard law enforcement, and an air of intrigue and mystery.
- Dystopian novels often feature a hopeless or subjugated society beaten down by a totalitarian government. The settings in these stories create an atmosphere of paranoia and suffocation. To that end, other recurring elements include state-sponsored propaganda, restricted freedoms, widespread surveillance, and cultural uniformity.
- Science fiction often requires extensive worldbuilding that may feature outer space, a dystopian society, or perhaps even a utopia. Advanced technology, evolution, or disease may have irrevocably changed society, or there might even be alien species that come with their own distinct social and cultural milieus.
- Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction set during the Steam Age, which took place before combustion engines and electricity. Unlike futuristic science fiction, which depicts a possible future, steampunk imagines a possible past. Its settings commonly feature Victorian social decorum and familiar inventions constructed not with plastic but with wood and metal (particularly copper).
- Fantasy is also known for extensive worldbuilding that incorporates magic and mystical or fantastical species. However, sometimes this magic is more subtle—magical realism incorporates understated magic into the fabric of everyday life.
- Westerns are highly specific in terms of time and place. They’re set in the Old American West, sometime between the late 18th and 19th centuries. Westerns tend to bring cowboys, bandits, wilderness, railways, and shootouts to mind.
Of course, no genre is beholden to a specific environment. Some stories even mix and match popular types of setting. Like the greater Star Wars universe it belongs to, the 2019 hit series The Mandalorian blends aspects of fantasy, science fiction, and westerns.
The Function of Narrative Settings
Setting helps readers understand a story by communicating its context, such as where and when the narrative takes place. Other contexts—such as social or political—can also explain what inspired the story’s main conflict and why. Whether a setting is crucial to the plot or largely inconsequential, it feeds the reader’s imagination, which helps them envision the story. To support this process, writers use setting to develop and round out their worlds. These details are typically revealed through imagery, description, and exposition, though other storytelling elements, like character observations expressed through dialogue, can also convey details about setting.
Stories driven by characters, themes, or events can often be removed from their settings without much consequence. In such cases, less time is devoted to describing general physical environments and cultural intricacies. Take Charlotte’s Web. The novel is mostly set on a farm and at a county fair—presumably in America, but the exact details are vague. The story could be transplanted to a farm in England or India or Thailand, and little would change because the story focuses on relationships and universal themes like death and growing up. The setting falls into the background in service of those themes and relationships.
But sometimes, a novel’s setting is essential to the plot. Think of Hogwarts castle in the Harry Potter series, with its talking portraits, moving staircases, and disappearing rooms. Harry’s experience in the wizarding world couldn’t take place at a normal boarding school. Or consider Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, a historical novel in verse set in Oklahoma between 1934 and 1935. The novel can’t be extricated from its Dust Bowl and Great Depression contexts because that environment directly controls the plot.
Such complex settings give stories nuance, atmosphere, and conflict, so writers must ensure these environments are as fully realized as the cast of characters.
How Writers Use Setting
Writers use elements of setting to facilitate worldbuilding. While both terms describe components of a world, the latter emphasizes that the world being described is something entirely new to readers. Because of this, worldbuilding is most associated with fantasy and science fiction, two genres known for expansive, imaginative, otherworldly settings. The opportunities for detail are virtually endless—location, social milieu, economy, politics, language, fashion, and cuisine all contribute to worldbuilding. All together, they create nuanced, multifaceted worlds that, while unusual or strange, reflect an authentic level of detail and complexity.
Setting can also reflect or emphasize characterization. The design of a character’s room—furniture arrangement, wall decorations, even closet contents—can all suggest something about their preferences, values, and personality. Social, economic, and politic context also affect characterization. Well-developed characters are products of their circumstances, so they have traits, values, and beliefs that were shaped by their environment. Jane Eyre, for example, wouldn’t be the same character if removed from her highly specific historical, social, and religious context.
Setting also contributes to tension, conflict, and atmosphere. The characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring must navigate the Mines of Moria to make it past a mountain range. The mines are dark, grim, and gloomy, which heightens the tension and pervasive sense of dread. The mines also stoke conflict, as the protagonists are repeatedly stymied by numerous dangers within, like the oppressive darkness, cracked and crumbling pathways, and malevolent creatures.
Setting is just as crucial to nonfiction. Representing the real world with accuracy and sensitivity is essential to establishing the writer’s credibility, demonstrating a text’s key themes, and grounding the work within context. This supports the text’s central message and improves the reading experience. A historical account of Reconstruction-era America would be incomplete without mention of racial tensions, civil rights, and industrialization, among other sociopolitical characteristics of the time.
Examples of Setting in Literature
1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
The high fantasy genre is known for imaginative worldbuilding, and no writer better exemplifies this than Tolkien. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion are all set on the fictional continent known as Middle-earth, an incredibly detailed, nuanced setting with distinct languages, cultures, and geographies—not to mention mythology and magic. But The Hobbit, the first published book to feature Middle-earth, introduces this expansive setting slowly. The first chapter begins:
In a hole in the ground there lived in a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
The worldbuilding is immediate. This paragraph reveals the existence of hobbits, who live underground and are preoccupied with comfort. By instantly associating hobbits with the earth and comfort, Tolkien primes protagonist Bilbo Baggins—and the reader—for experiencing a wealth of contrasts upon venturing out across Middle-earth, which is not nearly so cozy or quaint as his home in the Shire.
2. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Brave New World is a dystopian science fiction novel set in the year 2540. After a history of war and strife, the world’s governments were remade into the World State, which is overseen by 10 World Controllers. The World State’s caste-based citizens come off literal production lines; babies are created in factories and then brainwashed into accepting their lots in life. There is no family, no disease, no art. To hear the Controllers tell it, the World State is a superior society:
No wonder these poor pre-moderns were mad and wicked and miserable. Their world didn’t allow them to take things easily, didn’t allow them to be sane, virtuous, happy. What with mothers and lovers, what with the prohibitions they were not conditioned to obey, what with the temptations and the lonely remorses, what with all the diseases and the endless isolating pain, what with the uncertainties and the poverty–they were forced to feel strongly. And feeling strongly (and strongly, what was more, in solitude, in hopelessly individual isolation), how could they be stable?
The book’s first chapters establish what separates this engineered society—devoid of meaningful relationships and emotion—from the real world and from its protagonist, a natural-born man named John. Even before the main plot begins, words like prohibitions and conditioned hint that the World State is not as ideal as it seems. This context is crucial both for worldbuilding and for setting up the main conflict between John and this soulless society.
3. Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
One of Frost’s most well-known poems, “The Road Not Taken” contains an example of setting as metaphor. The poem, in which the speaker encounters two roads in the woods and ponders which to follow, employs this natural setting to depict its central theme. These are the first two stanzas:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
The poem is a commentary on life and all the choices and decisions that come with living. The image of two roads diverging in the woods depicts those moments when people must weigh their options and finally pick a path. That the poem occurs in the natural world also demonstrates that these choices are an inherent part of life.
Further Resources on Setting
Check out this Writer magazine article to learn why fully developed settings are crucial to both story and the reading experience.
In The A-Zs of Worldbuilding: Building a Fictional World from Scratch, Rebekah Loper covers everything a writer must consider when creating a fictional world, from architecture to language to zoology and much, much more.
In her TED-Ed Talk, “How to Build a Fictional World,” author Kate Messner discusses what makes fiction’s most memorable, immersive settings successful. She also shares tips for effective worldbuilding.