Setting – What is it and why is it important for your novel?


Before you start

It’s a great day! You’ve settled on an idea for your work of fiction. But before you dive headlong into the first chapter, have you decided on a setting for your tale?

Imagine how disturbing it would be if your story is a historical fiction around the time of the Irish potato shortage, and your story takes place in a location other than Ireland. Or you’re writing a romance but your setting is a city dump? Not to say these settings couldn’t work, but . . .

It’s important that you identify your genre before choosing your setting. As mentioned, you could make any setting work for any genre; but if you aren’t selective about your location before you start, you’ll make a whole lot more work for yourself if you have to convince your reader that the setting is believable for that story.

Arguably, I think settings for fantasy and science fiction worlds are the most difficult to create. While you as the author may have a clear idea of where and when things are happening, it requires excellent descriptive writing to transfer that “picture” from your mind to your reader’s. The groundwork for creating fantasy and science fiction worlds if often more extensive than when working with locations that people are familiar with, albeit only superficially.

If you take steps to clearly define your world before you start writing then the the various locations in your story will be clear in your own mind. This will allow you to generate a better “picture” for your reader; something known as world building. As already mentioned, world building is especially important when writing science fiction or fantasy tales.

Conversely, when you have a setting that readers are familiar with, make sure you do your research on these locations before putting pen to paper. This way you will have a solid grasp on the actual climate, vegetation, and geography rather then spouting forth unbelievable nonsense that could end up losing you a reader.

Writing a historical fiction? It is even more essential that you get the details as accurate as possible. Your credibility as an author can be compromised if your setting is not what readers are expecting for that time period.

Setting vs. Scene

Before we delve further into what setting is, some of you may be wondering about the difference between “setting” and “scene” or if there is even one.

Yes, there most certainly is! While setting may be viewed as the overall big picture, scene relates to the details. Think of setting as the map of the general area, while a scene is a specific town on that map. A scene can thus be said to be a small part of the setting as a whole.

While setting encompasses all the scenes in your story, a single scene depicts a particular incident that moves the story forward. This may be dialogue, action, an event, or a conflict to mention a few. Think of scenes as the various parts of a movie or play that work together to build the story as a whole. For example, the setting may be 18th century England, so the scenes could portray the various social events a debutante may have had to attend to secure a husband during that time period.

So while this post deals with setting, it also indirectly deals with scenes as these will be the mini-settings that together make up the backdrop for your story.

What is setting?

In a nutshell, setting is the time and place encompassing various scenes in a book. It creates the overriding atmosphere in which all the scenes occur. 

The atmosphere helps set the mood which in turn influences the way characters behave. For example, choosing a location known for its violence, would support a story about gang-related crime. This could also be an example of where setting is used to foreshadow events.

It sets up expectations for your reader about the sorts of situations they might expect to find the protagonist in. the obstacles that would need to overcome or the potential conflicts that could exist. Without a doubt, setting will influence the way your reader feels about the text, so choose a setting that will draw the reader in rather than chase them away.

Think about it this way: the places we have lived and the time period in which we did so affect our perceptions of that area and our actions relative to those. This is why the setting of a story determines the atmosphere; because the time and place gives the reader a mental picture of the world in which the characters find themselves. This mental picture then forms the backdrop for the credibility of the situations the protagonist(s) find themselves in and the lessons that can be learned. If you can capture the setting, you can create a story to which your reader can relate, which will make the story more entertaining.

Some questions to ask yourself about your setting

  • Geographical location(s)
  • Time period(s)
  • Climate
  • Environmental considerations
  • Biological considerations
  • Political environment
  • Economic environment
  • Social environment

This list is by no means comprehensive, but if you would like a cheatsheet with some in-depth details related to each of these, click here.

Final notes

  • Focus only on important details. There is such a thing as giving too much detail. You don’t want to slow your story down by bombarding your reader with a deluge of insignificant details. Ask yourself whether the details you are giving help move the story along in terms of plot or character development. If they don’t, delete them.
  • Use the five senses. Don’t rely only on what the characters see. Include what they hear, smell, taste and touch to add authenticity to the setting
  • Show, don’t tell. This premise is important to remember for any part of your story, but especially so when describing your setting. If you read the description you’ve just written and find yourself yawning, chances are you’re telling. A list of bland details is about as appetizing as eating a cardboard box. Give those details “emotion” by putting yourself in that situation and visualizing what you’d feel there; then use that to describe the scene.
  • Weave your setting into your story. Allow details that give depth to flow from the character’s dialogue or actions or the development of the plot. Avoid interrupting the story with a bland block of text related to the setting. Doing the latter will only confuse or annoy your reader, so avoid the temptation to “just quickly” give a rundown of where the protagonist finds themselves. Rather let these details flow from the story itself.


Congratulations! You now have some pointers to work with to determine your setting. And you’re now one step closer to your first chapter. Go for it!

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