Setting in Literature: A Guide to Describing Place in Narrative

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To help explain the importance of setting in literature, The Writers’ Academy tutor Dr. Barbara Henderson has put together a free online masterclass on how to weave setting into a story.

Read on below for her expert advice on how to let setting stand alongside other narrative elements and help bring your tale to life.

Then you can head over to check out the full online masterclass, Constructing Worlds and Setting Scenes, for even more of Dr. Henderson’s tips and information on setting!

 

What is Setting in Literature?

Setting can be comprised of several different elements

So what kind of elements come under the general umbrella term of ‘setting’? Perhaps obviously, it’s the country, the town, the city, the street, the house, the school – anywhere that’s a particular place in your novel:

  • The time of year – is it summer or winter or a significant date such as Halloween?
  • The climate – or a climate issue affects your plot. A harsh climate can affect a story, as can a tropical one.
  • How the land looks – the mountains or the trees or the rivers or the coast. It’s about human-made geography, such as cities and monuments and tower blocks and cemeteries and bridges and mines and farms.
  • Population – who’s around your main character and what sort of society do they live in?
  • The time period or era – is your story contemporary or is it set in another time – the past or the future. If it’s set in the past, what events were going on at the time, culturally and politically? What values and social mores did people have that are different to ours today?
  • The time of day – scenes play out at night, in the morning, over lunch. Setting is about atmosphere and mood – you can use aspects like the light, the temperature and the weather to affect the way a scene feels, the way the reader feels.

 

Description of Setting

You should give thought to how you intend to introduce description of setting into your story
One tip for bringing description of setting into your writing is to do it in order. As you approach a building, like Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, start with describing the outside – and then what your character notices as they move inside and through the building.
Think of a screenplay – and imagine you are holding the camera. A wide shot shows the house or the village from afar and then it begins to close in. Zoom in on detail and out again.
Your details can be concrete – in other words, things you can see and touch, such as a door with the paint peeling off, for example – or abstract, such as a smell of evil or a sound the character can’t identify.

 

‘Overwriting’
Overwriting is a common tendency of beginner writers
A thing that new writers are sometimes guilty of when it comes to description is ‘overwriting’.
Overwriting is when you use too much description, too many extravagant words, too many adjectives and adverbs, extreme reactions and over-the-top emotions, too much detailed introspection, wordiness in general, and repetition of words and concepts. In other words, purple prose or flowery writing.
Cut back your fancy writing – it’s often what’s meant by the phrase ‘kill your darlings’. (First coined by William Faulkner and emphasised by Stephen King).
Always keep the point of the scene in mind – the heart of what you are trying to get the reader to see and feel. Focus on the story. Only use metaphors and similes sparingly. Don’t feel you must over-explain.

 

Purposes of Setting in Literature
Stephen King’s novels often employ setting as a means of creating atmosphere
Essentially, your setting should work with your character and your plot, as a help or a hindrance. It could make things worse for your character, it should show how your character responds in certain situations and it can act as a symbol.
Setting in literature can also be employed in a number of other useful and interesting ways:
  • as a character – particularly common in works of crime fiction, giving your setting character traits can really make it come alive.
  • as foreshadowing – setting can be used to convey a sense of threat, for example, to prepare a reader for an upcoming plot development.
  • to create atmosphere – similarly, setting can be used to build suspense and to evoke a particular mood in the reader.

Tip: Write about the character of your setting: is it friendly, secretive, shiny, grubby, aggressive, dangerous?


A Final Reminder
Get to know your story’s setting in the same way that you do with your character. And just as you wouldn’t create a bland or boring character, don’t create a dull setting – ask yourself what detail or details set it apart from other places like it.

You can see the full transcript of Dr. Barbara Henderson’s free online masterclass on setting in literature, with extra tips and more in-depth discussion of the above points, here:

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