A short story or novel without a setting is one without context—it occurs nowhere and at no particular time. But every person and everything in our everyday world occurs somewhere at some given time. As in real life, characters are connected in some way, or ways, to a given place. They’re always aware of where and when. The setting of a story resolves this.
But that’s not the only function of setting in literature: there are other important uses. Altogether, each of these uses—if you avoid forcing things—can enrich your fiction. Let’s consider five important functions.
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The Setting of a Story: 5 Functions
Here are five essential functions of setting in fiction, including several examples of setting in literature.
Function 1: The Setting of a Story Locates Your Scenes
Let’s begin with the most obvious use of setting in literature: scene writing. Scenes take place somewhere—even if you haven’t bothered to say where this somewhere is. Find a way to situate your scene in a given place.
Readers want to feel like they’re there . . .
Readers want to feel like they’re there, wherever that is, seeing what their characters see around them, hearing sounds, noticing the environs. They want to be in a world of the five senses, the world they’re familiar with. The function, and importance, of setting in literature naturally differs from story to story. Let’s look at the setting of a story in two imagined scenarios:
Scenario 1: Nighttime Burglary
If a scene is about a safecracker, who stealthily works away in the dark, one setting detail is of crucial importance—the safe. But what about the house itself? If the burglar is freaking out when he hears sounds coming from the hallway, or from an adjoining room, then, of course, these details add considerable interest. He’s not alone!
What do those shoes sound like padding down the carpeted hallway? What kind of noise is coming from the adjoining room? Is it loud music threatening to drown out other sounds the burglar should be listening for? The focus is now on the safe, plus sounds from other quarters, as he tries to scope out his surroundings, sure he’s about to get caught, arrested, jailed. Every sound makes him feel trapped!
Scenario 2: Argument at the Breakfast Table
Now let’s imagine a totally different scene. Let’s say a quarrel occurs at the breakfast table. Mother and daughter disagree over use of the family car. They’re having ham and eggs, with coffee. Are these setting details useful in any way? They could be.
Characters speak and act in a world of the five senses.
Characters speak and act in a world of the five senses. These senses inform the setting of a story. As a writer, be sure to take stock of what’s around them. What might be useful? Take the coffee. The mother is sip, sip, sipping her coffee, vacantly looking on, while the daughter rails against her unfairness.
Now the mother is getting a bit riled. She forks in eggs, tinging the fork against the plate, quickly chewing. Finally, when the daughter says, “You never listen to me,” the mother stabs a piece of ham, ting, ting, and reminds her of too many fender benders. These sensory setting details add to the drama, enliven the scene, and put us there.
Do we need to describe the kitchen? The appliances? The cabinets? No, not unless they’re relevant. Could they be? Up in that corner cabinet squirreled away in a place no one is likely to look, the daughter has hidden an extra set of keys to the car, just in case her mother squelches her opportunity to run around with her friends. When her eyes aren’t on her mother, they inadvertently drift that way. But sometimes she looks down on the drab beige kitchen tile, which reminds her of her uneventful life.
As you explore the setting of a story, choose the details that relate to the characters and the conflict. If you describe the stove, the reader is going to ask: “Why? Why am I reading this?” Of course, you can always play with details and see if there’s anything you can tap for its usefulness—its relevance. While experimenting with the scene elements of setting in literature, be open to the possibilities.
Function 2: The Setting of a Story Creates Atmosphere
Every story has a mood or atmosphere, a certain feeling. It could be a sense of urgency, as in a thriller; a feeling of bleakness, as in a story of existential despair; or a lively, playful mood, as in a light comedy. As readers, the mood of a piece helps pull us in. Who wants to read something that is emotionally flat?
Setting details can contribute to mood, or atmosphere, to the extent that setting is involved in telling the story.
Setting details can contribute to mood, or atmosphere, to the extent that setting is involved in telling the story.
Atmosphere is clearly important in these classic short stories:
- Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”
- Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
- John Updike’s “A&P”
Crane’s classic tale is a tour de force of literary naturalism. The reader is caught up in a pervasive feeling of futility and bleakness—the four men in a lifeboat are absorbed entirely by the water stretching before them, for “None of them knew the color of the sky.” They struggle to survive against an indifferent universe, with all the odds stacked against them.
O’Connor’s story is also a bleak one, and notably grim—but in a much different way. Think about that dirt road, with the woods in the background, an off-the-beaten track locale where the Misfit’s fellow criminals senselessly kill members of the grandmother’s family—and then the Misfit shoots the grandmother three times in the chest. The feeling of alienation created by this isolated setting, with the pointless killing that goes on, is fitting to the darkness in the human heart, a familiar subject in O’Connor’s body of fiction.
Now, consider another mood altogether—the comical mood created by young Sammy’s irritation at the conventional environment of the A&P, peopled by middle-aged women shoppers, whom he disparages with animalistic imagery. Feeling oppressed by this place where he’s employed as a cashier, Sammy revolts when his boss informs three young women shoppers that they’re inappropriately dressed: “‘Girls, this isn’t the beach.’” The oppressive atmosphere is largely a product of Sammy’s great displeasure over middle-class propriety.
The setting of a story plays a large part in creating that story’s atmosphere. Once you’ve established that atmosphere, be sure everything fits with it, that nothing is tonally off.
Function 3: The Setting of a Story Reveals and Develops Your Characters
The setting of a story can reveal and develop a character, whether you’re writing a scene or getting into your character’s head.
Setting in Literature: Revealing the Character of Your Protagonist
The setting of a story can reveal the character of your protagonist—her likes and dislikes, her wants and needs, and so forth. If your character is drawn to a particular place, this might tell us something interesting about her. Let’s say it’s a place in the country. Let’s say your protagonist feels trapped in her urban environment. She abhors the congested population, the heavy traffic, and the light pollution—no stars visible in the night sky! Her frequent trips to the country, with woods, lakes, open fields, blue skies, and the moon and the stars brightening the night sky can show, if vividly rendered, what she really misses and values.
Setting in Literature: Motivating Your Protagonist
As in real life, fictional characters don’t just have likes and dislikes. They act based on these feelings. The setting of a story, along with everything else in the character’s life, figures in.
Setting can motivate character.
Setting can motivate character. Frequent trips to the country can motivate your character to change her life—not necessarily to move to the country but perhaps to find a way to live better, perhaps in a less congested place, in an urban environment.
When setting motivates your protagonist to perform a certain action, you need to decide if this causal factor is a single causal agent, or is it just one factor in a complex web of causes? In the case of her trips to the country, if your character decides to move from the city to the country, she might have several different motives for doing so, including the desire for a new job opportunity or perhaps moving closer to parents or grown children.
Try to figure out what it is—but this doesn’t mean nailing it down, precisely, for your reader. Some ambiguity is usually good.
Setting in Literature: Revealing the Character of an Antagonist
Let’s say your protagonist is trying to decide on a course of action. Let’s say it’s whether or not to let the boss know that this is the last time, the very last time, she is going to take work home—enough of that! She must show up at the boss’s office. Make an appearance!
Consider the boss’s office. That large, imposing mahogany desk, free of clutter. That rigid oak chair (clearly not for getting comfortable in) centered squarely in front of the boss’s desk. That District Manager of the Year award framed and centered on the wall behind the desk—at eye level. The gray velvet shag carpet. All these details, and perhaps more, can reveal the character of this antagonist.
But don’t overdo it. Give just enough to create a dominant impression. Here, it’s imposing.
Function 4: The Setting of a Story Creates Symbolism
Setting is not just the setting of a story. It’s not just a particular place. It’s not always a locale at a given time. Sometimes, it’s more than that. Given the various intricacies of the story, setting in literature can be symbolic, representing more than just “place.”
Sometimes specific settings point to meanings beyond the literal.
Sometimes specific settings point to meanings beyond the literal. Your protagonist need not be aware of these meanings, but the reader can be. Let’s consider the setting of a story in two scenarios—the first imagined, the second from a contemporary novel:
Scenario 1: A Junk Car
Your protagonist’s car is continually leaving him on the side of the road, day and night. When it was new, fifteen years ago, it was very nice sitting in it, relaxing, enjoying the comfortable ride, the road ahead, the scenery, but now it’s nothing but a drain. It’s utterly breaking down, causing huge repair bills, and he can’t see an end to it. It’s ready for the junkyard, but he can’t afford a new one. Meanwhile it feels like he’s building the car from scratch—which he is.
A particular setting in literature becomes symbolic when enough thematic parallels are there to make it so.
A particular setting in literature becomes symbolic when enough thematic parallels are there to make it so. How might that junk heap of car be symbolic? Let’s start with your character’s life: it’s coming undone. His wife just left him. His two kids hate him, or at least they say they do. He was recently laid off. On the way home from hearing that, he accidentally ran a red light and got a ticket!
And that bad car—on top of everything else.
Lately, whenever he feasts his eyes on it, he wants to park it in a ditch. He wants to blame it for everything wrong in his spiraling-down life.
With enough references to this breaking-down car, with enough bad trips when he’s stranded, and with sufficient (but not overly wrought) parallels to his breaking-down life, we’ll get the idea that this bad-off car is a metaphor for all that’s collapsing around him. But I use the word metaphor loosely. A metaphor doesn’t have a literal basis. This car is the literal thing; at the symbolic level it’s more than a car—it’s his messed-up life.
Scenario 2: The Commuter Train
A good example of symbolism in a contemporary novel is the commuter train in The Girl on the Train. The eponymous girl of the novel, Rachel Watson, watches people from her vantage point on the commuter train to and from London. From an alcoholic who lost her job to a woman whose husband cheated on her and ended their marriage, Rachel gets voyeuristically caught up in the lives of others in an attempt to deal with her own problems. Other than this, she has nowhere to go. This commuter train can be seen as more than a literal train; it becomes a symbol of the incessant ebb and flow of her unstable, isolated life.
Function 5: The Setting of a Story Develops Theme
When the setting of a story becomes symbolic, it can develop a story’s theme—the most abstract idea in your story or novel. Any number of settings might suggest a given theme, for instance, of a life on a downward spiral. What other settings or setting details might take on larger meanings beyond the literal?
With setting in literature, there are two categories to mine for thematic possibilities:
- Nature, including oceans, lakes, rivers, fields, woods, mountains, the sky.
- The manufactured environment, including roads, streets, houses, buildings.
Setting can point to theme if it’s sufficiently developed to suggest a particular theme.
Setting can point to theme if it’s sufficiently developed to suggest a particular theme. A host of possibilities exists. Let’s consider two famous examples, from two famous authors—a short story and a novel.
1. A Café: Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
Notice how this story is centered around the concept of “nada.” Existentially, there is “nada,” or nothing, out there in the cosmos to give meaning to our lives, and it helps to have a place like this café, lighted at night, in which to feel secure and comfortable—a refuge from the darkness. The title itself suggests the importance of the setting.
2. A Road: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
In this post-apocalyptic novel, the infrastructure that we all depend on is gone. A man and his son are on the move, the man pushing a shopping cart, like a homeless man, which he is. It’s winter and they’re heading south. Now it’s a matter of survival against natural as well as savage human forces, the latter most notably represented by the shocking discovery of live humans, held captive in a cellar, being cannibalized for their parts. This horrific setting detail might seem gratuitous, but it’ s not: it’s important in developing the author’s post-apocalyptic theme.
Creating the Setting of a Story
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, you’ll probably have a good sense for your setting early on. Setting includes time and place. In some cases, setting is crucial to the telling of a story. Examples: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s Light in August, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, John Cheever’s Bullet Park, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Add to this list Sue Monk Kidd’s antebellum novel, The Invention of Wings; Vietnam in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried; mining communities of Emile Zola’s Germinal and D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers; and the sea in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Setting is central in each of these novels.
To some extent, setting is probably important, in some way, to the telling of any story. After all, characters, like real people, live somewhere and relate in some way to their environment. Let’s say your character gets up early in the morning, fixes toast and coffee, gets ready for work, heads off on the train, performs his job, maybe stops off at a bar for Happy Hour, heads back on the train, lives his life. If we’re tuned-in readers, we’re going to wonder how the setting fits. Is this character wanting a change? Does he need a change? What kind of change? Is it environmental, or is it something inside him, and if so, is there a tie-in between what’s inside and what’s outside? Is he bored with his daily existence from apartment to train, from train to workplace, from workplace to bar, from bar to train, and on home?
Think about setting as you write your novel. Are certain details symbolic? What is the setting of a story in relation to its characters?
- Does the setting of a story reveal something about the protagonist? Is there something about the setting that suggests something about the character? For instance, is the setting dark and ominous in places, suggesting that the protagonist has certain dark, ominous things about him or her?
- Does something about the setting prompt certain behaviors on the part of the protagonist? For instance, does the protagonist want to flee this setting, having imagined a better world? What does that world look like? How does the protagonist imagine it?
- Does this setting have a past that disturbs the protagonist or, on a different note, attracts the protagonist because, in some way, it represents a great good place no longer accessible to him or her?
These are just three things to consider. As far as evoking setting in your reader’s mind, you can provide a dominant impression. You don’t have to describe every little detail. If you do, you’ll overwhelm your reader, and you’ll lose focus. Give just enough to situate your protagonist in a given place at a given time.
Final Thoughts on the Setting of a Story
Writers write differently. Some plan ahead; some just let it happen. For many writers, the various functions of setting will become apparent once they’ve drafted their entire story or novel. Perhaps they will think deliberately about how setting works, or could work, as they revise.
Whatever you do, be sure not to engineer things; for instance, don’t crimp and cramp to make setting symbolic or revelatory of character—or force your work to meet any of the five functions we’ve considered.
For more help on setting in literature, you might be interested in reading my chapter “What about Setting?” in my creative writing book entitled Write and Revise for Publication: A 6-Month Plan for Crafting an Exceptional Novel and Other Works of Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 2013). It’s available on Kindle.
You might also want to read my interview with Pulitzer-Prize winning author Elizabeth Strout: “Elizabeth Strout Is There” (The Writer Magazine).