Writing

What Is Setting in Writing? Plus Dan Brown’s 5 Tips on Writing Setting

Written by MasterClass

May 6, 2019 • 6 min read

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Dan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers

“Louvre Museum, Paris. 10:46 P.M.” Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, draws readers in right from the start by establishing the setting of the story that’s to come. Establishing the setting of a story—when and where the action takes place—is one of the fundamental building blocks of writing. A novel’s setting helps create a clear, vivid picture in readers’ minds and can help provide a rich background to develop plot and characters.

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What Is Setting in Literature?

In literature, the setting is the time, location, and physical environment of a narrative. A setting can be a specific geographical location, a historical era, or a fictional location or world. Other setting examples include the modern day, or in an unknown time and place, such as the future.

4 Reasons Why Is Setting Important in a Story

Every story has a setting, and every story setting is a three-dimensional world that can influence the characters’ actions. The importance of setting is based on its ability to:

  • Create a mood. Writers establish the mood or tone of a story by choosing where and when they set the action. For instance, setting a story during winter in Alaska—a dark, snowy environment—can create a tense, foreboding mood.
  • Establish context. Setting builds a framework that brings other narrative elements into play. Historical settings inspire authors like Dan Brown and provide context for his action-packed books. Inferno opens by dropping the reader into the middle of a chase through the streets of Florence, a city steeped in art and history. This setting allows Brown to give his main character, Robert Langdon, access to masterpieces from painters like Botticelli and Vasari, which provide him with important clues.
  • Support the narrative. According to Brown, “Locations not only function as characters that have personalities, but they can also function as pillars of your structure.” Opening The Da Vinci Code at the Louvre Museum in Paris puts the City of Lights in the spotlight, setting the stage where the action will play out. Brown uses Paris to access important elements—like famous works of art—that play a vital role in the narrative.
  • Serve as a plot device. Location can also provide inspiration for scenes. Brown chooses places that intrigue or excite him and will often use those places to determine how his characters move through the story. Sometimes, it makes more sense to him to use thematic elements—for example, in Origin, the story moves from the world of art (the Guggenheim Museum) to the world of technology (the Supercomputing Center). Occasionally, a location can even provide answers to plot problems. While writing one of the final scenes of Origin, Brown noticed a deadly staircase in Sagrada Familia that inspired him to imagine someone dying there.
Dan Brown sitting in a chair teaching in his MasterClass

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2 Types of Setting in Literature

The relevance of the setting determines which category it falls into:

  • Integral setting. An integral setting is when a writer uses a specific location and exact time period to directly support the plot and characters. Dan Brown uses integral settings in each of his novels. Like Paris in The Da Vinci Code, Florence in The Inferno, and Washington, D.C. in Deception Point, the cities in which Brown places his main characters are full of symbolism, rich with culture and history relevant to the themes he portrays.
  • Backdrop setting. A backdrop setting is unobtrusive to the narrative, like a nondescript house in the suburbs. While backdrop settings are often vague and generic, they help serve the narrative in a different way to integral settings: they make a story universal and easier to relate to. Many fairy tales have backdrop settings.

How to Pick the Time Period of Your Story

Time period is one of the primary aspects of setting in literature. As you map out your novel or short story, use vivid details—and your senses—to create a time that complements your story. Write down the time period in which your novel takes place. No matter if it’s historical or modern-day, try to be specific with the year in which your story occurs. Having a concrete time period can guide your research. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What season is your novel set in? What is the weather like?
  • Does your novel center around a major world event—e.g. war, natural disaster? How does this limit or define your time frame?
  • What cultural details belong to this time? Consider music, literature, entertainment, clothing styles, food trends, lifestyle trends, and big national events or crises that shape public sentiments.

How to Pick the Setting of Your Story

Location is an enormously useful tool in novel-building. You should treat it as you would treat a character, allowing it to convey mood and letting it reveal more of itself over time. You can transform relatively mundane scenes into more compelling ones by selecting locations that excite you. For inspiration, you can also:

  • Check out the CIA’s World Factbook, which provides comprehensive information for almost every country on earth.
  • Search Instagram by place names or any other visual topic you’d like to explore.
  • Google Street View will take you all over the world, but it can also take you beyond the “street view”—inside museums, arenas, and world landmarks. Use it to explore places you might otherwise not get access to.
Dan Brown explaining how to create setting in his writing

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Dan Brown’s 5 Tips for Creating Setting in Writing

Brown stresses the importance of a good location, and provides these tips to help you find yours:

1.Discover your world.

The first step in finding the idea for your novel is to discover your world. Brown’s book Digital Fortress came from his urge to know more about national security, and so that became his world. It helped him figure out who his characters would be, where the action would take place, and what would go on in that setting. Your choice should always be informed by your interests, so immerse yourself in books, television, movies, and anything else that inspires you.

2. Research.

Whether you’re writing what you know or pursuing a fresh passion, research is a critical tool for developing the world of your novel. What you learn during your research will allow you to immerse your reader fully in your setting.

3. Use your senses.

As you’re falling madly in love with your setting, however, remember not to put too much location detail into your writing, or you risk boring your audience. Readers are interested in your characters and plot, so information about your world is best conveyed through a character’s sensory experience or through action. For example, in the prologue of Inferno, Brown describes the Apennine Mountains “blotting out the first light of dawn” to illustrate the time of day.

4. Take field trips.

Visit a location you’ve never been to before—either an actual place from a setting you’ve chosen or simply a place near you that you find interesting. When you first arrive at the location, don’t record or photograph or write anything down, just spend some time absorbing it through your senses. Pay attention to the things that strike you most. Go home later and write a description of the place. Remember to include the sensory details—what it felt and smelled and sounded like.

5. Be careful with creative license.

Readers may already know the setting you’re describing and may recognize when you alter the real world in any way. If you must take creative license and change something, do it sparingly.

Looking for more writing inspiration? Learn more from Dan Brown here.