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Last updated on May 31, 2022

What Is the Setting of a Story? How to Write 3 Types of Settings

“When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go,” lifestyle author Alexandra Stoddard once wrote. She was referring to real-life places, but the same is true of fictional ones — the setting of a story can be just as affecting and memorable as a place you’ve actually visited.

But how do authors choose the right settings for their stories, and what tactics do they use to bring them to life? Find out in this comprehensive guide to story setting, complete with definition, examples, and tips for writing a setting that readers will remember forever!

What is the setting of a story?

The setting of a story is a literary device that establishes when and where its plot takes place. Also known as backdrop, a story setting can be drawn from imagination or based on historic events, as well as geographical locations in the real world (such as a specific city, or the house of a character). For example, The Martian by Andy Weir is set in space, in the future.

Setting serves as the backdrop to everything that happens in a story, and often contributes significantly to its atmosphere. This is why romance novels are typically set in small, cozy towns and horror stories in isolated, unnerving places (a Transylvanian castle, a cabin in the woods). Indeed, setting can be so powerful, it may even feel like a character itself!

What are the 3 types of setting?

what are the 3 types of setting?

You might think of setting in terms of 3 “types”: temporal, environmental, and individual. To demonstrate these concretely, let’s look at the various settings of The Great Gatsby (insert concrete jungle joke here 🏙️).

Note that just as characters can be entire products of an author’s imagination, so often are these individual settings! (The Manhattan Plaza Hotel obviously exists in real life, but the characters’ residences in The Great Gatsby do not.) Authors frequently combine real time, real place, and invented — or at least embellished — individual settings, to ground the story in authenticity while maintaining flexibility on the details.

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Story setting examples

You can probably think of a dozen more setting examples. But just to solidify the notion, here are three particularly strong ones, along with passages to show how each author paints the setting of their story.

Maycomb, Alabama in To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s unparalleled classic about American race relations in the 1930s takes place in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. Notice how the narrator, Scout, describes Maycomb as stiflingly humid and old-fashioned, establishing the era's status quo of oppression and suffering:

setting of a story - to kill a mockingbird

Narnia in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Meanwhile in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe , C.S. Lewis introduces Narnia as a winter wonderland full of possibilities — though it’s somewhat deceiving in that the White Witch has cursed the land to eternal cold. But it’s crucial to the narrative that Narnia appears as a still, snowy place that lulls Edmund into a false sense of security just before he meets the Witch:

setting of a story - narnia

North West London in NW

For a more contemporary example, let’s look at a description of North West London in Zadie Smith’s novel NW . As part of the novel’s vision of London as a polyphonic city “containing multitudes,” Smith describes the area in terms of both former inhabitants and present-day scenery. To arrive at the complex present, she must first acknowledge the past:

setting of a story - northwest london

Of course, each of these passages provides only a glimpse of the rest of the book. As an author, don’t just drop a paragraph of scenery description at the beginning and never mention setting again!

For setting to be effective, it needs to filter through the entire story — fortunately, this next section on how to write setting will show you how to do just that.

How to write setting in a story

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1. Choose your setting wisely

Let’s talk about setting suitability: as the examples above clearly demonstrate, every great story hinges on setting. The Great Gatsby would not work if it were set during the Great Depression, and it’s almost impossible to imagine most of Zadie Smith’s books taking place anywhere other than London.

So before you start writing your story, make sure the setting fits like a glove. For some authors, this will be easy! But for others — especially those who are doing a bit of worldbuilding for a sci-fi or fantasy novel — choosing your setting may be a bit trickier.

To set you (no pun intended) on the right path, here are a few important questions to consider:

Once you’ve answered these to your satisfaction, you can settle on your setting (as it were) and begin constructing it in more detail.

2. Focus on what’s unique

Not every element of your setting will be worth noting, so focus on what’s unique. Every city has buildings and sidewalks, but how are they different from every other city’s? If someone leans their head out the window, what do they hear besides traffic or birds? Does the town square smell like bread from the local bakery, or like pollution from a nearby factory?

Get the details straight

Again, think of your story setting almost as another character. Just as you might fill out a character profile to flesh out their quirks, you can profile your setting too! Here are some “setting profile” questions to get you started:

📜  What’s the history of this area?

🌦  What is the weather like each season?

🌇  What are the biggest landmarks of this setting?

🏡  In what sorts of residences do most people live?

🚙  How do people tend to get around (walking, driving, etc.)?

👍  Why do people like (or dislike) living (or visiting) here?

For a more exhaustive list of setting-related questions, you can check out our free worldbuilding guide — the perfect tool for creating fictional settings.

how to write a story setting


The Ultimate Worldbuilding Template

130 questions to help create a world readers want to visit again and again.

The natural addition to each of these questions is: and how does this affect my characters? This is where you’ll tap into the most interesting features of your setting — by considering how your characters will perceive and react to what’s around them. To quote Carmen Maria Machado: “Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view .”

Now, with a clear sense of what you want to highlight in your environmental setting, you can move on to incorporating these features into your story.

Pro tip: When writing about places you’ve never been or have only seen as a tourist, over-emphasizing famous landmarks like Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and the Empire State Building will make your work read like that of an amateur. To avoid this, play around on Google Street View and discover some more quotidian hangouts for your characters!

3. Use all five senses in descriptions

how to write a story setting

As you describe each setting of your story, make sure you don’t just talk about how it looks. Instead, use all five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste. This is especially important when writing a first person account, but also applies to other POV's — and you can check out our free course below to learn more.

how to write a story setting


Understanding Point of View

Learn to master different POVs and choose the best for your story.

You shouldn’t use all of these in every description, nor should you continuously rehash settings you’ve already described. But as a rule of thumb, each time your characters visit a new location — or experience that location in a new context (e.g. at night rather than in the daytime) — you should devote a paragraph to setting the scene. 

Here’s a great example of concise and multi-sensory setting description from Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House :

Inside, the music thumped and wailed, the heat of bodies washing over them in a gust of perfume and moist air. The big square room was dimly lit, packed with people circling skull-shaped vats of punch, the back garden strewn with strings of twinkling lights beyond. Darlington was already starting to sweat.

In just three sentences, we get four out of five senses:

The rest of this party scene consists of mostly dialogue and action, but Bardugo is careful to describe each new room the characters enter, so the reader always has a clear picture of what’s happening. Indeed, the more you show rather than tell with sense-based setting descriptions, the more you’ll immerse readers in your story. Just don’t go overboard with pages and pages of detail — zero in on what’s most interesting and unique.

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4. Develop your characters’ relationships to the setting

Once you’ve established the characters in your story, you can dig into their relationships with the setting.

These relationships can take many forms. Say your main character has lived in the same town their entire life; they might have a longtime fondness for it, or they could resent and feel trapped by the setting. These kind of characterstics or desires can be established using a character development exercise, like the profile template you'll find below, which prompts you to dig deep into your character's background. Whatever you decide, make sure this nuance comes through in your narration!

how to write a story setting

Reedsy’s Character Profile Template

A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.

What you don’t want is a character so detached from their surroundings that their story could take place anywhere. At bare minimum, you need them to interact with the setting in specific, realistic ways. For greater impact, use setting to challenge them, assist them, or both.

💪  Setting as a challenge vs. setting as an asset

Susan Choi does an amazing job of positioning setting as a challenge in Trust Exercise , which begins with two young characters trying to walk to each other in a vast, highway-dense city:

story setting - trust exercise

But setting doesn’t need to oppose your characters in order to feel relevant and meaningful. Here’s an example of setting as an asset, from Madeline Miller’s Circe , describing Circe exploring her new island:

story setting - circe

And remember, you’re not limited to one or the other! Over the course of a story, a setting may play varying roles in a character’s life, both positive and negative. Just make sure it doesn’t sit there as an idle backdrop.

5. Keep your readers oriented

The final cardinal rule of story setting is: keep your readers oriented. You don’t want people to get distracted from your plot because they’re too busy trying to untangle where the action is happening!

Ironically, one of the quickest ways to confuse readers is to give them too much setting detail. So when introducing a setting, keep the description concise, as in the Ninth House example — a few evocative sentences will do. If you have more to say about the setting, you can incorporate it later.

In terms of specific directions, again, less is more. “He walked out of his apartment building, turned left onto the road, then right onto the sidewalk, then another left onto another sidewalk” hardly makes for riveting storytelling. If you must use directions, at least ensure they’re consistent! Don’t say the police station is on the east side of town, only to describe the sun setting (a famously western phenomenon) behind it in the next scene.

These are the kinds of issues that can really throw readers off, even subconsciously — so make sure you get them straight. If you’re particularly worried about setting inconsistencies, you can always hire a copy editor to comb through your work.

An editor will ensure your setting is spotless ✨

The best copy editors are here on Reedsy. Sign up to meet them today.

Learn how Reedsy can help you craft a beautiful book.

🗺️  Consider drawing a map

Whether you’re building an elaborate world from scratch or simply want to be as accurate as possible when representing a real place, a map of your setting could help (you might even commission an illustrator to draw one for you). This will give you a more concrete sense of your setting while you’re writing, as well as streamline the reader’s experience down the line.

Here are some of our favorite fictional maps, for reference:

setting map - lotr

And there you have it — everything you need to know about writing the setting of a story! With a solid sense of time and place and compelling, character-based descriptions, you’ll be well on your way to conjuring a setting, like Narnia or Jazz-Age NYC, that readers won’t forget. It's an essential step to becoming a better writer .

Continue reading

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by Yen Cabag | 0 comments

setting of a story header image

How many times have you felt yourself transported to a whole new world or time in history, simply by reading a great book?

Your imagination is able to conjure up images of a land you’ve never seen only because you read about them in a story. 

The setting of a story is one of the most important elements that can determine whether a story works or not. To review, the basic structure of a story includes: 

What Is the Setting of a Story?

The setting of a story essentially refers to the time and place when the story take place. Although it might seem less important compared to plot or characters, setting actually plays an important role in how the story plays out. 

Two Types of Setting 

When you write your book, you can choose between the following common types of setting: 

Backdrop Setting

The backdrop setting happens when the story is timeless and the writer does not specify the time or place when it happened. The timelessness of the story means that it could happen anywhere and anytime, and the focus is generally on the story’s message. 

Fairy tales, fables, and other children’s stories commonly use the backdrop setting. For example, although A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh generally takes place in the Hundred Acre Wood, it does not point to any specific town.

It also does not specify the timeframe, making it a timeless favorite for generations of children across the world. 

Integral Setting 

In contrast to the timelessness of the backdrop setting, the integral setting is one that points to a specific place and time period. This is because the role of the setting is integral to the point of the story. 

For example, historical fiction novels cover a specific time in history because that period plays a crucial role in unfolding the plot. 

Everything that the characters do will also depend on the setting. If your story is set in the pioneer times, they will generally have to do what pioneer homesteading families did, such as maintain their own farms, churn their own butter, and do all the other countless chores of that time period. 

How to Write the Setting of a Story

One important rule in writing is always “ show, don’t tell .” So how do you show the setting of a story?  The following tips will help you to create and share a believable setting. 

1. Write what you know, or do your research. 

The best way to create a believable setting is to write about a place that you do know. But if that’s not possible, your next best bet is to do plenty of research. 

For example, in Judy Blume’s Masterclass , the bestselling author shares how she once set a story in a city that she had only visited on vacation. While it seemed interesting at the time, looking back, she believes that she could’ve done better by putting it in a place she knew more intimately. 

You can also try creating fantasy maps to get a better feel of your setting (especially if it was born in your imagination), and share that map with your readers so they can understand the layout and details of your setting.

2. Describe the setting using your 5 senses. 

When you arrive in any new city, what things stand out to you? How the skyline looks; how many people are moving around, how the city sounds, and how it even smells. Pay attention to the details. 

When you write about the place your character lives in, create imagery by describing it in terms of all your senses. This will make it seem more real to your readers. 

3. Let your descriptions flow naturally. 

But, with your desire to present all the details of your setting, exercise restraint. Show only whatever is necessary in the first few pages, and incorporate the rest into your story over time.

For example, if your story is about a hero’s journey through treacherous mountains, at the start you will likely only describe where your hero is at the moment. The rest can unfold as he goes along.

4. Describe your setting through your characters’ eyes. 

Unless you are an expert at using the omniscient third-person point of view , one creative way to make setting seem more real is to describe it through a character’s eyes or thoughts. You don’t have to make them say these things out loud, but they can think these thoughts. 

For example, a trip to a new city will look different to an adult who has always been traveling than to a child who has never stepped foot outside his family’s farmhouse. Describing the new city from the child’s perspective will lend it a creative air. 

Why Is the Setting Important in a Story?

The setting of the story plays several key roles in moving the plot forward.

It sets the mood of the story. 

What is the mood of your story? The setting helps the readers to imagine the elements at play around the characters. Is your story set in a bustling city or a lonely town? Reading a description of the place where the story takes place can give the readers a fixed picture of what to expect. 

It sets parameters around the characters and plot. 

The setting also gives the limits around what the characters can do and what can happen. For example, in fantasy novels, you as a writer build a world where the story takes place: what are the laws of the fantasy land? Do the characters have magical powers? What are they capable of doing? 

It helps make the plot believable. 

The plot is an essential element of a story, but the setting plays a key role in making the twists and turns believable or not. For example, in The Lord of the Rings , much of Frodo’s journey through Middle Earth depends on the terrain that characterizes the story’s setting. 

It can contribute to the conflict. 

Great writers know how to connect the setting to the conflict. The venue can add obstacles and limitations that the characters need to overcome, raising the stakes and making for a more entertaining story. 

For example, in the 2012 film The Impossible , the conflict is triggered by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and the story being set right in devastated Phuket, Thailand adds to the suspense of whether the characters will eventually find one another.

Changing places can also change characters’ viewpoints and options. 

For longer novels, the changes that happen to your setting can change your characters, as well.

For example, in Gone With the Wind , Scarlett O’Hara first encounters Atlanta as a bustling metropolis that she falls in love with. Soon, the war ravages Atlanta, and we observe the changes through Scarlett’s eyes. 

Much later, she returns to the devastated city and watches as it is rebuilt again, while she rebuilds her own life from the ashes. 

Examples of Setting

Below are 4 examples from literature that demonstrate an effective use of setting in a story.

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder 

In The Long Winter , part of The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, an unexpectedly long winter blocks off the food supply and families in the isolated town must find ways to survive. 

First, the setting places the story in southeastern Dakota Territory around 1880–1881, when a severe winter took really was recorded and experienced by the author in her childhood. 

The mere fact that the area is difficult to get to makes the problems of food supply a more logical part of the story. Also, the time period gives us insights into how homesteaders in generations past made do with what they had. 

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor 

To show the struggles of the black community in the South, Mildred Taylor sets Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry right in the cotton fields tended by black farmers, both owned by these black families and those that are leased out by white landlords. 

This setting helps the readers connect with the plight of the black families. 

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

In The Borrowers , Mary Norton puts the setting right in the middle of ordinary things: inside the house of regular-sized human beings, a family of Borrowers run in and out to “borrow” common, everyday items. 

The book lends charm to these regular objects by describing them from the perspective of inches-tall, humanlike creatures. The sequels to the book take place in other areas, such as in the fields and on the river, but this first book makes the Borrowers more easily imaginable by showing them in relation to things everyone has at home. 

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

The Chronicles of Narnia takes place in two settings: the land of Narnia and the regular world where the main characters come from at the start of the story, which is also where they return. 

One exception is The Magician’s Nephew , where the children first go into different lands in Narnia but accidentally bring back the witch into their world. This unique use of setting catches the reader’s attention and instantly brings to mind the question of, “What if something like this were to happen?” 

Building Your Setting

When it comes to writing your setting, make sure you pay attention to each essential element of the story. As you write, keep in mind how your setting might affect certain elements of your plot or your characters’ experiences.

After you work on setting, also consider learning some more about the other elements of a story, such as creating believable characters and building rising action for your conflict. 

Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:

Yen Cabag

Yen Cabag is the Blog Writer of TCK Publishing. She is also a homeschooling mom, family coach, and speaker for the Charlotte Mason method, an educational philosophy that places great emphasis on classic literature and the masterpieces in art and music. She has also written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her passion is to see the next generation of children become lovers of reading and learning in the midst of short attention spans.

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How to describe setting

How to Describe the Setting of a Story

One of the toughest nuts for any novelist to crack is where to start.

How do I know? Well, two-thirds of my 192 published books are novels , so I’ve faced this dilemma nearly 130 times.

Trust me, it doesn’t get easier. But there are common errors to avoid. I know because I’ve made them. And because I love asking agents and editors what mistakes they see in beginners’ manuscripts .

Ready for the most common error?

The apparent feeling that you must start by describing the setting of your story.

Setting is important; don’t get me wrong. But we’ve all been sent napping by novels whose covers and titles promise to transport us, and yet begin with some variation of:

The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by…

Pro tip: Readers have little patience for description. In fact, they often skip it to get to the action. 

If your main question is how to describe the setting, I have a simple answer:

But, you say, I have to establish where we are and set the scene, don’t I?

Yes. Like any other reader, I like to get an immediate feel for where and when things take place. But we writers make a mistake when we make that—describing the setting—a separate element.

If you do it at the beginning, you should do it for every scene in a different setting, right? Sorry, but that will quickly transport your reader from slumber to death.

Well, you say, how do I set the scene without describing it?

You don’t. But you make description part of the narrative, part of the story . It will become almost invisible, because mentions of what things look and feel and sound like will register in the theater of the readers’ minds, but they will be concentrating on the action, the dialogue , the tension and drama and conflict that keep them turning the pages.

In the end they won’t remember how you worked in everything they needed to fully enjoy the experience.

Consider these setting examples:

London in the 1860s was a cold, damp, foggy city crisscrossed with cobblestone streets and pedestrians carefully dodging the droppings of steeds that pulled all manner of public conveyance. One such pedestrian was Lucy Knight, a beautiful, young, unattached woman in a hurry to get to Piccadilly Circus. An eligible bachelor had asked her to meet him there…

I shouldn’t have to inform you that such an opening is all telling , no showing , and that the question of how to describe the setting has been answered, but not correctly.

London’s West End, 1862

Lucy Knight mince-stepped around clumps of horse dung as she hurried toward Regent Street. Must not be late, she told herself. What would he think?

She carefully navigated the cobblestones as she crossed to hail a Hansom Cab—which she preferred for its low center of gravity and smooth turning. Lucy did not want to appear as if she’s been tossed about in a carriage, especially tonight.

“Not wearin’ a ring, I see,” the driver said as she boarded.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nice lookin’ lady like yourself out alone after dark in the cold fog…”

“You needn’t worry about me, sir. I’m only going to the circus.”

“Piccadilly it is, Ma’am.”

First, the location tag, flush left before the first paragraph, saves us a lot of narration which can be used to let the story emerge .

And yes, the second sample is longer, but that’s because we’re not telling , we’re showing .

The reader learns everything about the character from the action and dialogue, rather than from just being told through description .

So try the technique you’ve likely heard about since the day you decided to study writing:

You’ll have to remind yourself of this daily for the rest of your life , but once you add it to your writing toolbelt , you’ll find it adds power to your prose and keeps your reader’s interest.

The key, as you can see from the examples above, is to layer in your description.

Maybe when Lucy meets her new gentleman friend, he grabs her and pulls her into an alley, saying, “Come here where no one will see us.”

There she might scrape her knuckles against a brick wall and wish both hands were free so she could tighten her coat against the wind.

Incorporating description that way— showing rather than telling —can alone revolutionize your novel.

…and see how it picks up the pace and adds power.

It will force you to highlight only the most important details, triggering the theater of your reader’s mind. If it’s not important enough to become part of the action, your reader won’t miss it anyway.

But you’ve read classic novelists who use description exactly the way I’m advising against. What gives?

Two things:

1—If those novels were written before TV and movies (let alone smart phones), they were aimed at audiences who loved to take the time to settle in with a book for days at a time.

2—If those novels were written in our generation and still succeeded with that kind of writing, it’s because the author is a master. If you can write at that level, you can break all the rules you want.

I can’t, so I’ll stick with what works for today’s readers. How about you?

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  1. What Is the Setting of a Story? How to Write 3 Types of Settings

    How to write setting in a story 1. Choose your setting wisely Let’s talk about setting suitability: as the examples above clearly demonstrate, every great story hinges on setting.

  2. How to Create a Vivid Setting for Your Story

    Try these writing exercises to develop a strong story setting and see where it takes your narrative: 1. Visit a real-world location you’ve never been to before. This can be an actual place from a setting you’ve chosen or simply a place near you that you find interesting.

  3. How to Write the Setting of a Story: 4 Tips for a Memorable

    The following tips will help you to create and share a believable setting. 1. Write what you know, or do your research. The best way to create a believable setting is to write about a place that you do know. But if that’s not possible, your next best bet is to do plenty of research.

  4. How to Describe the Setting of a Story

    Describing the setting of a story before starting the action: London in the 1860s was a cold, damp, foggy city crisscrossed with cobblestone streets and pedestrians carefully dodging the droppings of steeds that pulled all manner of public conveyance.

  5. How to Describe Setting in Literature

    In literature, a story setting is when and where the action takes place. Your story’s setting establishes the environment of the fictional world that will be planted in the reader’s mind as they read through your creative writing. Fleshing out your setting isn’t just for fantasy worldbuilding —every story can benefit from a detailed environment.