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How to Describe Setting in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

As a writer, you might want to dive right into your plot and start giving detailed character descriptions. But those characters and that story all need a space in which to exist—that space is the setting. Taking the time to properly describe your setting will give your book more vibrancy and keep your readers engaged.



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What Is Setting in Literature?

In literature, a story setting is when and where the action takes place. Your story’s setting establishes the environment of the fictional world that will be planted in the reader’s mind as they read through your creative writing. Fleshing out your setting isn’t just for fantasy worldbuilding—every story can benefit from a detailed environment.

Why Is a Good Setting Important?

The setting of a story gives readers a sense of place. Including various different elements of setting can help create a clear, vivid picture in readers’ minds and can help provide a rich background to develop plot and characters. A good setting builds a framework that brings other narrative elements into play. It can create a mood and establish the context (like time period or universe) where your story is unfolding. It can also supply important elements to your story, like landmarks or historical sites. A good setting can even provide plot devices, turning your geographical location into its own entity or antagonist that has an effect on your main characters’ actions.

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How to Describe Setting in Writing

There are endless combinations of descriptive words and specific details that can contribute to your descriptions of setting, creating a clear vision of where your story takes place:

  • Use sensory details. Use all five senses to describe the immediate surroundings to the reader to quickly immerse them in the environment of your story. The little details of how your marketplace smells, or what the wood of an old house feels like can make all the difference in your descriptive writing, and really set the stage for a vivid reader experience.
  • Show, don’t tell. Your setting descriptions should be more than just listed off for the reader. If you have an active or hostile environment, show how the setting changes or interacts with characters. If there’s a factory nearby, don’t just tell the reader that—describe what it smells like or how it changes the way the sky looks. You can also indicate the time of day or time of year it is in your story by including how the sunlight looks or discussing weather changes.
  • Use real-life locations. If you need inspiration, look at the setting around you. The old church down the road may not be what the religious center in your sci-fi novel looks like, but using real locations as a basis for the ones you create can help outline the setting you’re going for. Just like how character behavior drawn from real life examples can give a natural depth to the characters you’re writing, the same can be done for setting. You can also use pictures and videos from places you cannot visit to get a general idea of what your own location would be like.
  • Incorporate figurative language. Your descriptions can be literal, but sometimes you can create a stronger image in the reader’s mind when using metaphors or similes to compare it to something else visual. For instance, comparing the volcanic eruption in your novel to a fiery, vengeful dragon can create intense imagery that will have more of an impact on your readers’ imaginations.
  • Keep it simple. Focus on the details that really matter. The importance of setting in a book should not be overlooked, however, it is also important not to go overboard. A long list of what a place looks and feels like might feel thorough, but ten pages of scenery descriptions will be boring for the reader. Parse out the most interesting and vital details when describing the setting of your scene to give the reader a sense of balance, and not overload them with adjectives.


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