When a writer or author decides to write a story, there are a few questions they must ask to create their account. They must ask who? This will give them the characters of their story. They must also ask what? It will provide them with the story’s plot, i.e., what happens to the characters and what the characters do. Then they must ask when and where their characters will act out their plot. A story setting is the when and where a story is set.
- When can be if the story is set in the past, the present, or the future. Or even what time of the year it is. Is it night or day? Is it set at Christmas, a particular historical event, or period, or has it not even happened yet? This is called the temporal setting.
- A story can be set in a particular country, at sea, in space, in a desert, in a jungle, or in an entirely imaginary world. This would be the geographic setting.
- The reader must also know where the story is set within the geographic setting. It could be in a castle, a house, a car, or a dungeon; the possibilities are endless. This is the individual setting, i.e., the specific area within the geographic location. But this isn’t always necessary; a story set within a forest can be clear enough!
- There are other considerations regarding a story’s setting, which may cover both when and where. This could be environmental settings such as the weather – like is it during a storm? Is it foggy? Is it a lovely sunny day?
Once these questions have been decided, you have a story set!
Why are story settings necessary?
Story settings are important because they give context to the time and place where the characters and plot unfold. Events in the plot need somewhere to happen, and the characters need somewhere to do what they do.
The story’s setting can often influence and dictate the characters and plot of a story, and it is essential to choose elements that work well together for a good story and credibility. For example, a samurai and an elf traveling through space in a milk float might not make such a great story (although).
Story settings also do more than merely form a backdrop to a story. The chosen setting, such as that of a particular historical period or a genre, sets the story up to the reader with a load of already pre-conceived notions and expectations of what the story may entail and free up a lot of time spent on exposition (explaining features of the story).
For example, setting a story during a storm can suggest some inner turmoil the character may be feeling. And in stark contrast, setting the story on a nice sunny day could indicate that the characters feel happy and content.
But there are multiple interpretations of such settings, such as a sunny day could also indicate that the heat might mean the characters are feeling uncomfortable or under pressure. Again, it is up to the writer to make such suggestions by using literary devices such as adjectives:
Describing a day as “bright, sunny, warm, breezy, etc.” would indicate to the reader that the character or part of the plot is positive.
Whereas if a day were described as “chilly, rainy, cold, dreary, ” it would indicate a hostile story setting.
Describing other senses, such as what can be heard, also works well for story settings, and combining adjectives can have different effects:
If the soundscape were described as “peacefully quiet,” the reader would read this as a good thing.
If it were described as “eerily quiet,” it would create a sense of foreboding and atmosphere.
The atmosphere is created by how the writer depicts their story setting and creates a mood that the reader feels. The atmosphere is useful for getting better pay-offs from plot lines.
For example, suppose the writer creates an atmosphere, mood, or feeling of dread and fear in the build-up to a showdown between the story’s protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain). In that case, the feeling of relief and satisfaction in the reader is more significant when the protagonist defeats the antagonist.
Story settings can be used as metaphors, such as climbing a mountain may be a metaphor for overcoming significant obstacles in a character’s life. Think of The Lord of the Rings novels culminating with the main protagonist, Frodo, climbing Mount Doom to destroy the ring of power.
How to come up with a story setting
Remember, it is necessary to distinguish whether the story will be in first, or second-person perspective.
It’s also important to remember what that particular character would notice, especially in stories set in the first-person perspective. So, for example, if we placed James Bond and The Cat in the Hat in the same individual setting, they would notice different things, and the reader would get their unique character’s perspective of the story setting, which would ultimately shape the story.
A story setting described in the third-person is shaped by the writer and can inform the reader about the characters. For instance, if we are introduced to a character in their bedroom described as messy, dirty, or untidy, we make assumptions about the character.
A golden rule when creating stories is to “show” the reader rather than tell them. This is more applicable if a story is set in the third-person perspective. Because the author can’t say to the reader directly what the thoughts and feelings of a character are, they can “show” them through using the story setting:
Is the character confused or feels lost? Set the story in a hall of mirrors or a maze.
Is a character powerful and vital? Place them higher than others on a throne in a grand building made of stone or steel.
Deciding whether the story setting will be completely made-up or rooted in reality is also important. While imagining a completely new world might be fun, you may find yourself explaining a lot to your readers (exposition).
Describing a story setting with adjectives can help to build the world. Think about the colors, the textures, the feel, the smells, the sounds, the views, the light, the background characters, etc. that will all play a part in the story setting. It is also essential to think about how these will affect your characters.
Here are some examples of story settings as outlined above from popular books:
(When it comes to a story’s setting, there can be many different settings throughout the story that can reflect other characters or parts of the plot.
Dracula: Set in the late 1800s, in a castle within a forest in Transylvania and Victorian London, mostly during misty or moonlit nights. The central protagonist often hears the wolves’ distant howling and the bats’ fluttering.
Ask the class: How would you feel if you were in these places?
Harry Potter: The Harry Potter books are interesting as they begin in contemporary England, in a typical suburban house. Then the character is transported through a fictional train platform through the genuine King’s Cross Station in London into a fantastical college for witches and wizards.
Ask the class: How would you gain entrance to a fantastical world in your life?
The Road: Is set in a post-apocalyptic America in the future, where little grows, the scenery is bleak, barren, and grey, and there is little solace in indoor settings.
Ask the class: How would they imagine a story set in the future?
James and the Giant Peach: Set inside a giant peach! His evil aunts’ house, locked in his bedroom, afloat at sea, finally arrives in New York City, where the peach lands atop the Empire State Building.
Ask the class: What food would they most like? What is the size of a house that they could live inside?
Why not get your students to write the story settings for their favorite books, films, or stories?