Have you ever spent so much time figuring out your novel’s setting? Or maybe you didn’t know where to start? A story’s setting is an essential element of a book. So, let’s discuss novel settings, what they are, and how to use them.
What Is Setting In A Novel?
The setting of a novel is where the overall plot takes place in terms of the area and time period. The setting also includes climates, landscapes, societal structure, and more.
In a nutshell, the setting is the backdrop of the story. It’s often revealed through the story’s exposition rather than all at once at the beginning.
Why Is Setting Important?
Would you be as interested in reading a book by an author if the characters did everything with a black backdrop? If they were in a literal void with zero description?
Maybe you would, but you would do so with the anticipation that the curtain would soon draw open. And when it didn’t… that would be pretty disappointing.
It wouldn’t matter how developed the characters are or how well-written the plot is. If there’s no backdrop, then the story looks and feels dull.
That’s why the setting is so important. It establishes the context of the events happening in the story. Also, it sets the mood and tone.
In addition, the setting can also be used as a plot device. Description can go a long way to show what the characters are doing, where they’re doing it, and why.
When Should You Use Setting In A Story?
It may seem obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway. The setting should always be used in your story. It should be set at the beginning of a book to show your readers where the story takes place.
Wherever the scene changes or your characters travel from one place to another, the setting should be established. It’s also sometimes necessary to note day, night, and the weather.
Your readers won’t always need to know every detail, but like starting a new paragraph per topic, you should describe the setting per scene.
Types Of Settings
As mentioned earlier, there are many layers to the “setting” of a story. It’s not simply an area and time period. There’s much more to it that involves worldbuilding. Whether it’s a fictional place or based somewhere in real life, worldbuilding helps your readers get immersed in the story.
First, we have geographical location. This is when a story is set within a particular country, state, or city. Or, it could be put in an imaginary world with its map. Geographical locations will always be found on a map based on a real-life or fictional place.
Meanwhile, the physical environment zooms in on these places a bit further. The environment is frequently described as outside nature forces. For example, this is the time you would mention the overall climate, weather, or natural disasters.
On the other hand, physical location refers to the character’s immediate surroundings. For example, a specific park they frequent or their bedroom. You may not need to describe these places in detail within your story, but it should be mentioned if there’s something notable in these areas.
Time period isn’t always the year. It’s not always a historical event from real life. The time period can also refer to the month, season, and time of day. Knowing the year is essential if it’s based on real life.
Social And Cultural Environment
For example, your character shouldn’t have a cell phone if the story occurred in the 1950s. This is where social and cultural environment comes into play. Especially if your book draws in events from real life, those events may affect what your character hears or sees, it may affect their beliefs, and it may also dictate what they’re able to do or not able to do.
Tips For Describing Your Setting
Now that we know what setting is, the different types, and why it’s important, let’s go over some tips for utilizing setting in your stories.
Research The Area And Time Period
If you’re basing your setting on a place in real life, then one of the best ways to set the mood is to research it.
For example, if you’re story is set in Salem, Massachusetts, during the Witch Trials, then it’ll be in your best interest to learn everything you can about the Witch Trials.
There’s a time period to think about. What was the world like? What Salem looked and felt like?
You can also visit Salem yourself. Take pictures, take notes, visit museums, and learn what you can. Also, note what is different in Salem now from when the Witch Trials occurred. You may not need to know that for your story, but it’s good information to have in your back pocket.
If your setting is based on a place in real life, especially if you’re writing historical fiction, remember that you’ll want to teach your readers something.
On the other hand, if your setting is set in a magical world or another fictional place, there’s still research to do. For example, maybe you’ve created your version of Salem, Massachusetts, and created Vampire Trials rather than Witch Trials.
If that’s the case, have fun with it. However, you can still draw inspiration from the real place to immerse your readers within the scene.
Be Aware Of Your Surroundings And Take Notes
Inspiration is everywhere. No matter where your story is set – real or fictional – if you see something in real life that tickles your fancy, take note of it. Write it down or take a picture.
You can utilize that statue, monument, building architecture, or whatever it is as inspiration for something in your story.
Decide Which Details Matter Most For Your Story
We’ve already discussed the different types of settings. Thinking upon that, knowing that you’ll need a time period, geographical location, and the like, now it’s time for you to decide which detail matters most.
For instance, what details will you need to add to your story if you’re researching a specific time and place from the past? If the detail doesn’t add to the plot or character development, or it’s an unnecessary detail of the setting, you probably don’t need it.
You can add it to your notes. First, however, you’ll need to figure out if it’s helpful to your readers. This can be difficult, but that’s what editing and revising are for.
Integral Setting Vs. Backdrop
One way to help you figure out which details are important is to know the difference between integral settings and backdrops.
Integral settings are integral to the plot and the characters. For example, your characters must go to a specific place to advance the plot.
On the other hand, backdrops are simply backgrounds. They describe the scene so that your characters aren’t in a void somewhere but don’t disrupt the narrative. They’re often vague descriptions to paint a broad picture.
Use The Five Senses
Using the five senses is a great way to describe anything in your novel, not just your setting. But, of course, for the sake of this article, we’ll stick to talking about the setting.
When a new place or area is introduced in your story, an easy way to paint that picture is to describe it with the five senses
What do your characters see? What do they hear? Can they smell anything? Are they tasting anything or touching anything?
You don’t want to bog the readers down with too many details. You’ll need to decide what your readers need to know and what they don’t.
For example, if your character has never walked barefoot in the grass before, you can go into detail about what the grass feels like, what it possibly smells like, how green it is, etc.
Otherwise, most people have walked barefoot in the grass before. So, if it’s relevant to the plot, you can make your character notice how dead the grass looks. Otherwise, you won’t need too many other details.
Connect The Character To This Place
The setting should assist or challenge your characters. In addition, your characters should have a connection with the setting.
For example, maybe they feel trapped by their hometown or are too comfortable at home but forced to leave.
Take Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit, for example. The Shire is very important to him, and he’s a homebody. But when he’s forced on a journey, he’s relieved to return home at the end, but now he’s restless, eager to begin a new quest.
On the other hand, the setting might connect to someone else in the story, and they’re connected to the protagonist.
Overall, the characters and setting need to work together.
Create A Mood Board
Once again, whether you’re basing your setting off on a place in real life or if it’s something made up, you can create a mood board to help you describe the areas in your novel.
A mood board can contain pictures of buildings, meadows, oceans, islands, or whatever you need. You can also have a color palette to help you describe the area to the best of your ability.
A simple image of a sunset, for example, is helpful to describe a time of day, the colors, and more.
Create A Timeline
Creating a timeline for yourself is ideal if your setting changes over time or your characters need to go to many different places quickly.
For example, if war is a big theme in your story, your protagonist’s hometown could be ruined halfway through the story. A timeline can help you see these changes, especially if they happen behind the scenes when the character is off somewhere else.
Not only can you map out where the characters are and when, but it’ll also help you keep track of the setting’s history.
Again, it doesn’t matter if your setting is a real place or if it’s fictional. It’s a good idea to know the area’s history (and possibly the future), so you and your readers can see how the characters impact the setting throughout the plot.
Draw A Map
In addition, you can draw a map. Not only can a map be helpful to you, but if your characters travel a lot, a map may also be helpful to your readers.
A map can show the terrain your characters must go through from Point A to Point B. Also, your readers can follow the path visually.
How To Decide The Best Setting For Your Novel’s Plot And Characters
It’s not always easy to decide on a setting for your stories. Take it from me – I went back and forth many times to determine if my mystery series should be based within a fictional city or in a well-known area.
Honestly, I feel like that’s the first step. Next, you’ll need to decide what type of setting is best for your story. Real or fictional?
If you’re writing a fantasy novel, you may need to go with fiction, especially if you choose to have a magic system. But, of course, you could go either way, depending on the year.
For instance, if you’re writing from the past, you can get away with using a real place or creating a fictional area based on that time period. But, on the other hand, if you’re setting is in the distant future, your place, even if it’s based on a real area, will end up being fictional in its own way.
When deciding to base a story on a real place, choose wisely. New York City and Los Angeles are used quite a bit. Try selecting a unique area if you can help it.
However, if you’re writing that story about the Witch Trials, you’ll most likely need to go with Salem, Massachusetts. So, it all depends on the plot as well.
Whichever setting you decide, make sure it supports the characters and narrative.
Painting The Picture For Your Readers
The setting is more intricate than we think. It’s not always about closing your eyes and choosing a place randomly on a map. It should be important to your book, supporting the plot and its characters. Then, you’ll need to make your readers feel like they’ve been to that place before.
- Podcast Episodes: Worldbuilding Playlist
- Article: World-Building Basics
- Article: How To Build Your World: History
Rachel Poli is an indie author, podcaster, and content writer working on her debut cozy mystery novel.
Although she favors mystery, Rachel is a multi-genre author with too many ideas and characters in her head, often experimenting with short stories and flash fiction.
When she’s not writing, she’s reading, organizing something, or playing video games. She currently resides in New England with her zoo.