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Elements of Fiction: Setting

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January 2010
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The Setting of a Story

I continue to write about the elements of fiction. In the last post, I wrote about plot and plot structure. In this post, I will write about the setting of a story.

What is the setting of a short story or novel? It is one of the elements of fiction. It refers to the time and place of the story. A setting can be historic, contemporary, or futuristic. But the setting also includes the historical period, political climate, and social conditions in which the story takes place.

The Purpose of Setting

What is the purpose of setting? The writer creates a setting for several reasons. First, the writer must decide whether the setting is an integral part of the story or just a backdrop.

Once the writer determines the role of setting in the story, he/she must create a setting that is believable in the mind of the reader. Otherwise the reader won’t suspend disbelief. Even though the story is fictional, it must be plausible. A good writer knows how to craft a fictional story that is believable.

Creating a realistic setting is one way the writer can make the story believable in the mind of the reader. To convince the reader, the fiction writer can include realistic details about time and place. The place might not actually exist, but the writer convinces the read it does.

The writer can also include actual facts about a real place, such as the name of a city, street name, or landmark.

Another way the fiction writer can create a realistic setting us to place the story within an actual social/political/historical context. Most stories can only take place under certain social, political, or historical condition. For instance, a historical novel takes place during a specific time in history. In Nineteen-Eighty four, George Orwell creates a story in which the main character exists within a totalitarian society. Without this political context, this story would not exist. The writer’s goal is to place the story in a particular context.

The fiction writer can also use setting to create a mood or atmosphere for the story. Mood is the underlying feeling of the story. For example, Cormac McCarthy, in “The Road”, creates a mood that is bleak, dark, gray, barren, and hopeless by creating a story that takes place in postapocalyptic American after a cataclysmic event.

The fiction writer can also use setting to create conflict in the story. For instance, in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the writer places the story on a deserted Island in the middle of the ocean. The boys are forced to engage in primitive behaviour to survive. In essence, the setting becomes a type of antagonist.

There are other reasons fiction writers create the setting for a story, including the following:

  • To use the setting as a symbol. In other words, the setting is symbolic of something in the story.
  • To provide historical or geographical background information that is essential to the story.
  • To develop the plot.
  • To illuminate characteristics about the protagonist, villain, or secondary characters.


How to Create a Setting

The fiction writer needs to create a setting that is believable in the mind of the reader. To do this, the writer must create a story that takes place in a realistic setting, such as the city of Toronto. Even if the place doesn’t exist, at the very least, the writer needs to make the reader believe that the time and place are real.

How does the writer go about creating a realistic setting for the short story or novel? There are several techniques, including:

  • Journalistic questions. To help envision a setting for the story, the writer can use the following journalistic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
  • Concrete and specific details. The writer must describe the setting using concrete and specific language, not abstract and general details.
  • Technique of show, don’t tell. The writer has a choice whether to narrate or to dramatize the time and place of the story. The most memorable stories are dramatized.
  • Sensory details. The writer can create a setting that is believable by using language that appeals to the senses, such as the sense of smell, taste, sound, touch, sight.
  • Realistic details. The writer can make the setting believable by making reference to actual places, historical time periods, and actual events. A good place to start is by reading the newspaper.
  • Facts. The writer can create a believable setting by making reference to facts that are well known to the reader, such as the names of popular cities, street names, historical events, social problems.
  • Research. Often the writer will need to do research about the setting, such as on the historical period, social conditions, or political climate.
  • Personification. The writer can create a memorable setting by using the literary device of personification. To do this, the writer assigns human attributes or characteristics to different aspects of setting, like the weather.


The goal of the fiction writer is to provide just enough detail to create a memorable setting in the mind of the reader. To do this, the writer needs to decide which details of the setting are important and why. Only important details need to be included, not trivial details.

Resources for Writing Fiction

There are several good books available to help you learn about the elements of fiction. The following books—and resources that I recommend— were used to research this article:

  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing by Colin Bulman
  • The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb
  • How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  • A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction by Jack Hodgins


Next, I will write about character and characterization.


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