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An essential component of a good short story or novel is worldbuilding, which starts with the setting of a story. The setting of a story is the physical location and time period of a piece of literature, and it’s the staging ground for the events of the story—the plot line—and the main character’s character development.
What Are the Elements of a Good Setting?
A clear setting that’s easy to envision plays an important role in a book’s success, but some settings are more captivating than others. The following aspects of setting make the best ones stand out from the pack:
- Specificity: When readers praise an author’s worldbuilding abilities, they’re usually referring to the level of specific clarity the author brings to their descriptions. Your setting should be full of ample detail about time period, geographic location, immediate surroundings, time of day, and sensory details—what the characters see, hear, smell, and touch.
- Novelty: Each year brings many thousands of new books and screenplays to the market, and many of the stories they contain take place in familiar locations. The type of setting that stands out from the pack is one involves an unusual time period, geographical location, or even conceptual space. As a theoretical example, most books are set in the physical world, but very few are set inside the imagination of a dog.
- Familiarity: A good setting may also feel familiar to an audience. Such examples of setting include a well-known city like London or New York, or perhaps a pastoral farm setting that intentionally reminds the reader of settings they’ve enjoyed in other books. You can still have novelty while maintaining some aspect of familiarity that makes the story approachable for readers.
4 Classic Types of Setting in Literature
In practice, literary audiences are drawn to settings that are both ambitious and familiar. As a storyteller, approach the creation of your setting with enthusiasm and precise detail, and you’ll have added a highly important element to your novel or short story. To understand the role that setting plays in literature, consider these setting examples. In particular, take note of how aspects of setting inform story and character:
- A fantasy world: Stories set in a fantasy world provide permit rule-bending when it comes to the laws of nature that govern real life. The Lord of the Rings, an epic fantasy trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, uses a fantasy world to tell stories of bravery, conquest, and loyal friendship. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has many supernatural qualities that our own world does not, yet despite the story setting, there are many familiar spaces—homes, pubs, forests—but the world remains almost entirely removed from our own.
- A semi-fantasy world: In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Hogwarts is the type of setting that merges fantasy with reality. While the school has obvious fantastical qualities—it’s a school of wizardry, after all—it also mimics a social environment that real life students intimately understand, and exists in relationship with the real world as we know it. In this sense, Rowling’s setting helps draw young readers into Harry’s world because, in large part, it maps relatable human emotion onto the kind of wild, supernatural adventures that kids dream of having.
- A real locale from history: There’s nothing in the definition of setting that says it must be invented from scratch by an author. In fact some of the most compelling settings are real world locations and time periods. Toni Morrison’s decision to set Beloved in the nineteenth century at the American border between North and South made the book’s riveting story all the more urgent, since it tackled a volatile era that most readers already know from history books. Meanwhile, literary analysis of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 reveals how the book’s World War II setting heightens the degree of absurdity and despair within its pages.
- Multiple locations or time periods: Ambitious writers may not want to limit themselves to one single setting or one single time period. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and It by Stephen King show how the passage of time affects a particular setting. Meanwhile The Mayor’s Tongue by Nathaniel Rich tracks two non-intertwining stories that are linked by theme and subject matter but not by setting itself.