By Boni Wagner-Stafford

May 23, 2024

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7 Elements of Setting for Writers

Writing strong setting is a skill that, when honed, can help make your work sing. Time, place, mood, social and cultural context are important elements of setting for writers. They play a key role in shaping the overall tone, atmosphere, and believability of a story.

Your reader needs to feel oriented to the setting as your story moves along. Ideally, you’ll give them the information they need in the first couple of paragraphs of a new chapter, scene, or a change in location. Where is this part of the story taking place? What’s the time of day? What’s the intensity or colour of the light? Is it deathly silent, or a bustling cacophany of sound?

Here is a list of seven elements setting for writers to pay attention to, regardless of the genre you’re writing in.

1. Setting as character

Just like characters, settings can have personalities, histories, and moods that impact the narrative. Treat the setting the same way you would treat another character in your story.

Is the town vivacious, with brightly-coloured buildings and art and bustling sidewalk cafes? Or is it monotone, everything shades of grey, from the clouds in the sky to the asphalt underfoot and everything in between?

Use the setting to reflect and reinforce the themes and emotions of your story.

2. Setting and character

The setting will influence how your character behaves, their values, and their perspectives. It can help you reveal deeper aspects of who your character is. Are they afraid of direct sunlight? Do they love to run outside in a downpour? It can be especially effective when the reaction of a character to the setting is not what’s considered the norm.

Characters should interact with and react to their environment in a way that feels authentic for that character.

3. Details and specificity

A writer’s job is to notice things. And then to notice that we’re noticing. Include specific and vivid details to bring the setting to life. This helps readers immerse themselves in the world you’ve created.

Consider all the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch—and incorporate them to enrich the reader’s experience.

Does a character waltz into the room bringing with her the smell of vanilla? Do certain emotions have a taste? Is the leather chair warm, supple, and inviting — or is it perhaps cold and clammy?

Of course you’ll want to ensure the right balance between detail and overview: too much descriptive detail about the setting when you’re trying to create an action scene will slow your reader down.

4. Research and reality

If your story is set in a real location, conduct thorough research to ensure accuracy. If at all possible, visit the place. Spend time going where your characters would go. Even in fantasy or science fiction settings, elements of real-world settings can be used as inspiration.

Understanding the historical, cultural, and geographical context is a crucial element of setting for writers.

5. What’s changed?

Remember that we tend to take things for granted when they are always present, but we’ll notice when something has changed. The photograph that has been hanging on the wall in the hallway since your character moved into the house twenty-five years ago barely gets a glance — until someone takes it down. Now the vacant spot may be glaring to your character. Or perhaps they don’t notice that the picture is gone but they have a sense of unease, that something is wrong, but they can’t immediately figure out what has changed.

How a character reacts to these changes in elements of the setting help you bring the reader deeper into their understanding of the character and their motivations.

6. Symbolism

Setting is full of symbolism that can help us add depth and meaning to our characters and the stories we’re telling by moving beyond the literal. These symbols may be universal, or they may be uniquely personal to your character.

Universal symbols could include things like the colour black, which symbolizes mourning, or spring, which represents a new beginning.

Personal symbols allow you to provide your reader with glimpses into the internal world of your characters. Does a character see a church as a place of hope and redemption, or filled with corruption? The character’s past experience and conditioning will dictate their own interaction with the symbols found in setting.

7. Setting and plot

Because the setting is where the events in your story take place, it plays a key role in plot development. The setting can support certain actions or events, like a romantic scene between two characters who are sitting in front of a crackling fire while it snows outside. Or the setting can create conflict or throw up obstacles for your characters, like a vehicle crashing through the plate glass window in the middle of that romantic scene in front of the fire.

In fiction, take care to consciously use setting to reveal to the reader more about your characters and to keep the plot moving forward.

In memoir, and other types of nonfiction, pay attention to what is already present (or absent) within the setting that helps drive the story you’re telling forward.

Over to You

What are your most important considerations for effectively leveraging setting in your writing? How would you advise other writers to enhance the overall impact of their stories through immersive and authentic settings? Let us know in the comments below.

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