Writing

Understanding Story Setting: 5 Tips for Choosing a Setting

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 27, 2019 • 4 min read

Whether it’s the streets of New York City in the 1970s or Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, setting is one of the most important literary elements in story writing. Setting—the where and when of the narrative action—creates a believable world for the characters to pursue their goals.

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What Is Setting?

Setting is the time and place an author chooses for a literary work. A setting can be a real time period and geographical location or a fictional world and unfamiliar time period. Setting also includes the physical landscape, climate, weather, and the societal and cultural surroundings that serve as a backdrop for the action. Setting is revealed through the exposition of a story.

5 Elements of Setting in Literature

In fiction writing, the basic definition of setting is the time and place of a story. But there are different elements that contribute to the creation of a setting, including:

  1. Geographic location: A story might be set in a real-life, mappable place like a particular city, state, or country, or it might be set in an imaginary world. Learn more about worldbuilding in our guide here.
  2. Physical location: A character’s immediate surroundings, like a room or a temple, can be important information to highlight.
  3. Physical environment: A story can be set in the natural world where characters are affected by weather conditions, climate, and other forces of nature.
  4. Time period: As a writer, it’s necessary to ask, “When does this story take place?” In literature, time period can be a historical period but it can also be a season, a time of day, or time of year.
  5. Social and cultural environment: The location and time period will dictate the social and cultural environment in a story. If a short story is set in a high school, there will be societal norms and trends specific to teenagers. If a story is set in the late 1960s, it might be set against the cultural backdrop of the Vietnam War.
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3 Examples of Setting in Literature

Authors choose a setting specific to the characters and plot of a story. Here are three setting examples from literature:

  1. Harry Potter: In J.K. Rowling’s famous series about a boy who discovers he is a wizard, Harry Potter attends on Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Replete with ghosts, floating candles, and mysterious corridors, this imagined magical world delivers a setting that supports the storyline and stands in stark contrast to the ordinary human world.
  2. Call of the Wild: This classic Jack London story takes the reader to nineteenth century Yukon territory, a harsh and rugged environment. The dramatic setting creates the framework for the character arc. The main character, a domesticated dog named Buck, heeds the call of the wild and becomes the leader of a pack of wolves.
  3. Romeo and Juliet: William Shakespeare establishes the setting for his play in the first lines (“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene”) and foreshadows the tragedy that will unfold there (“Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean”).

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5 Tips for Choosing a Setting for Your Story

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In creative writing, an author uses setting to create a context for the action, character development, and conflict in short stories and novels. Here are six writing tips to help you choose story setting ideas to support the narrative elements of any piece of literature:

  1. Decide if your story needs a specific setting. There are two types of setting you can choose from: integral setting and backdrop setting. Integral setting is a specific place and time that plays an important role in the story. An integral setting dictates other societal elements in a story like language, dress, and transportation. A backdrop setting is generic—for example, a story that takes place in an unnamed small town that is not time-specific.
  2. Decide if your setting is a real or imagined place. As you develop your story ideas, determine whether the action takes place in the real world or an imaginary one. If you are writing a novel about the beginning of the California surf scene, the real world setting will be the Pacific Coast of California. If your story is science fiction, you’ll likely construct an imaginary environment, a process known as worldbuilding.
  3. Find a setting that supports the action. A great story will have a setting that complements the plot; it supports the development of conflict and tension from the rising action, through plot points, until the climax and falling action. Decide what physical locations within your larger setting can enhance a turning point in your story, or consider what location elevates the drama of the story’s climax.
  4. Pick a setting that supports character actions and development. Whether your story is told from the first person or third person point of view, your readers will experience the setting through your main character’s experience. A great setting enhances a character’s motivation and goals, providing the framework for their quest. As you begin writing, visualize your story in various places and periods to see which one best supports character development.
  5. Research your setting. To create vivid and realistic setting descriptions, you need to do research. If you’re writing a work of historical fiction set during World War II—or even if you have a flashback scene set during another real-life time period—use writing resources to discover what the world was like back then. This will help you accurately depict plot events. Use Google to look up first-hand accounts and images. If possible, visit the location and walk around to get a complete sensory experience. Jack London spent a year in the Yukon before writing The Call of the Wild. Use first-hand research to flesh out the setting using figurative language that engages the reader.

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