How does the setting contribute to the story? The short answer is that it advances the plot. However, the next question would be, “how?“
Setting is one of the most important elements of literature. It is the world (the time, place, and cultural context) in which your characters live and breathe—the world in which the drama of your story unfolds. As such, getting your setting right can make all the difference when it comes to hooking and engaging your reader.
A well-crafted setting feeds the reader’s imagination. It allows your reader to dwell on the environment and context of the story, ultimately helping you to immerse them in the real or fictional world the author wants to explore. In works of both fiction and non-fiction, the setting can play just as pivotal a role in the story arc and plot development as the characters and events.
Writing a good setting is a skill, and just like any skill, you can hone it. So, if you want to learn more about how to write a good setting and why it is so important, you are in the right place. In this article, we will explore how the setting helps advance the plot of any story. Later, we will outline the elements of crafting a setting that will ultimately make you a better writer.
A story’s setting can help to advance the plot by…
- Aiding character development
- Providing context for the story
- Creating a mood and atmosphere
1. Aiding character development
Character development plays a crucial role in overall plot development. Still, you would be mistaken to think that character development alone advances the plot. Characters must develop from somewhere, and they transition from situation and perspective, from A to situation and perspective B through events in their lives.
Those events must take place somewhere, in a time and place. That somewhere influences the types of events and the characters’ emotional responses. For example, stories set in a particular period give a character a specific societal and cultural surroundings that influence their thoughts, actions, and behavior. A princess in a castle may think very differently from a space-faring bounty hunter. Characters’ backgrounds influence their development.
For example, characters who live in Victorian England will behave in ways that reflect the setting in which they live. Society’s rules, expectations, social class, and limitations stem from the story’s setting and influence the characters’ perspectives, behaviors, and, most importantly, decision-making.
Similarly, a story set during the Great Depression will influence how characters behave and relate to the world around them. So, setting influences decision-making, affecting how the character’s arc unfolds and impacting the overall plot.
2. Providing context to the story
Earlier in this article, we mentioned the power of setting when it comes to hooking and engaging readers. The reason it is useful for grabbing the reader is two-fold. First, the setting is one of the first elements of a story to which the reader is introduced, so getting it right is crucial. Too much detail leads to a loss of focus, and elements of the setting will get lost. Too little detail and the reader will have difficulty immersing themselves in your world.
Second, once the reader learns about the setting of a story, they begin to create expectations. For example, if the story starts in the year 1600, then the reader knows not to expect artificial intelligence or space travel. The setting gives context to that story.
Of course, you can always subvert a reader’s expectations—a story might begin in 1600 and finish in 2600. Still, that is yet another example of how the setting contributes to the story. It is not just the original setting itself that influences the story, but how that setting changes over time and how characters get from one setting to another.
The setting also helps create a social and cultural context for the story, which are crucial plot points. Many stories follow the main character who plays off the social and cultural context they live. The character and overall plot development are influenced mainly by how they relate to their given culture and whether or not they are passive toward it or driven to change or escape it.
Society and culture, influenced by the setting (time and place), can play pivotal roles in plot development because they present a challenge or struggle to the characters. Nothing reveals characters’ true feelings and motivations, quite like facing the limits of the society and culture in which they live.
3. Creating a mood and atmosphere
The mood evokes an emotional response in the reader, motivating them to keep reading and seek some resolve. Moreover, a reader who is emotionally invested in a story will pay more attention to it, thus understanding its theme and central message. So, the mood of a story is another literary element that contributes to the reader’s experience. The setting primarily influences the mood of a story. Just as changes in setting influence the plot, as mentioned earlier, mood changes have the same effect.
For example, imagine two characters having a picnic on the beach. The day is sunny, and the environment is relaxing. The mood is peaceful and easy. Next, a large dark cloud begins to drift across the sky, and soon after, heavy rain starts to fall. The mood has shifted from peaceful relaxation to urgency and even disappointment. Not only does that evoke an emotional, empathetic response in the reader, but it also influences the characters’ feelings and reactions, which moves the plot forward.
What two elements make up a story’s setting?
Two basic elements of a story’s setting are time and place.
Time is the period in which the story takes place. What year is it? What season is it? Even more specifically, what time of day do certain events take place? How do events that happen early in the morning differ in impact from events at night? Why do those events take place at those times?
On the other hand, the place is the geographical location where the action happens. In what city or country does the story take place? More specifically, does an event take place indoors or outdoors? Does the story occur in the world as we know it, or is it in an alternative or fictional world of the author’s creation?
Time and place work together to create an immersive setting. For example, the Paris of the 21st Century is vastly different from the Paris of the 19th century. Berlin in the 1930s looked quite different from Berlin in the 1980s.
The place is the same, but the time is different, which implies a diverse social and cultural context to the piece. The socio-cultural environment in which the story’s events occur influences how characters behave daily. It also offers an opportunity for the author, and thus the reader, to explore how characters relate to each other on various social and economic lines, ultimately providing insight into the broader world of the story. This makes the setting one of the most crucial story elements.
The setting provides a context for the reader to understand, explore, and discuss the themes they run through the storyline. Choices and events build characters, but they are also understood by the limits, or privileges, of the societal status and position in which they find themselves.
Powerful examples of setting in literature
1. Charles Dickens’ description of London in Oliver Twist
To better understand just how important a well-written setting can impact a story and the reader’s experience, consider how Dickens conveys an image of 19th century London in Oliver Twist.
The public-houses, with gas-lights burning inside, were already open. By degrees, other shops began to be unclosed, and a few scattered people were met with. Then, came straggling groups of labourers going to their work; then, men and women with fish-baskets on their heads; donkey-carts laden with vegetables; chaise-carts filled with livestock or whole carcasses of meat; milk-women with pails; an unbroken concourse of people trudging out with various supplies to the eastern suburbs of the town. As they approached the City, the noise and traffic gradually increased; when they threaded the streets between Shoreditch and Smithfield, it had swelled into a roar of sound and bustle.
From the first word, the reader is immersed in a vivid image of 19th Century London, allowing the reader to achieve a visceral sense of the physical location in which the scene occurs. This vivid, visceral, and immersive description hooks the reader.
2. John Steinbeck’s California in Of Mice and Men
Consider John Steinbeck’s description of the Salinas River in his 1937 novella Of Mice and Men. Before any action takes place, before any characters are introduced to the scene, Steinbeck immerses the reader in the nature of the story.
A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees — willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool.
On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.
In the setting description above, Steinbeck paints a backdrop. It is in the foreground of the setting where the story’s events will occur, but without the backdrop, the reader is left with a blank canvas. The setting is peaceful, serene, and, as such, creates that mood and atmosphere in the reader’s mind.
3. J.K Rowling’s Hogwarts in the Harry Potter Series
In the Harry Potter Series, J.K Rowling uses two main settings as a means of stark contrast. The story begins in Harry’s home, where we learn that he lives in a small closet under the stairs. We get a sense of confinement and dull life. Later, we learned about the most famous magical setting in modern literature, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
‘The narrow path had opened suddenly onto the edge of a great black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers…’
‘…” Heads down!” yelled Hagrid as the first boat reached the cliff; they all bent their heads and the little boats carried them through a curtain of ivy which hid a wide opening in the cliff face. They were carried along a dark tunnel, which seemed to be taking them right underneath the castle, until they reached a kind of underground harbour, where they clambered out onto the rocks and pebbles.
Here, the description of Hogwarts as a towering, glistening presence acts as a stark contrast to the stuffy confines of Harry’s closet bedroom. This is an example of how a change in geographic location can open the characters, and by extension, the reader, to a new life—a new set of dynamics and freedoms to which characters had no access or even awareness.
Conclusion: How Does The Setting Contribute To The Story?
“Places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view.”Carmen Maria Machado
What is a story without a setting? The setting is a multifaceted, indispensable tool in all great literature, classic to modern. Not only does it immerse the reader in the story, but the social and cultural context of a setting opens the reader to themes, challenges, and perspectives of characters that allow them to understand the characters’ motivations on a deep level. Changes in setting also allow for a significant transition in the plot that would be otherwise unachievable.