Elements of setting: How to create a vivid world

Elements of setting - how to create a vivid fictional world

The elements of setting – time, place, mood, social and cultural context – are what help to make a novel feel real and alive.  If your setting is fully realized, then your story will be as well, and the overall effect will be a more immersive novel. Read more about using the key components of setting to make your novel’s events more vivid in the reader’s imagination:

What are the 4 key elements of setting?

Setting can be divided into four key areas. Each area contains its own numerous sub-categories. The core elements of setting are:

  • Time
  • Place
  • Mood
  • Context

To clarify: In the setting of a novel, ‘time’ can refer to the length of time in which the story unfolds (as short as a day or as long as 1000 years or more). It can also refer to time period, the historical epoch (for example the Middle Ages) in which your novel is set. ‘Place’ is the ‘where’ of story setting: Place in your novel is the geographical location of the story’s events (they take place on a specific planet (or in space), in a specific country, county, city or neighbourhood (or span across several). The ‘mood’ of a story’s setting refers to the tone that is created by the combination of the previous two elements, time and place. The mood of a dank and rustling wood is very different to that of a bustling, bright metropolis. Lastly, ‘context’ in setting refers to the way time and place come together and show how people in your specific setting live, think and act.

Here are tips for making each of the four elements of setting in your novel more vivid:

How to write time in a novel

Use time of day to dramatic effect

open doorDetails as simple as the time of day add colour and variety to your novel’s mood. Characters leaving on a mission in the dead of night  instead of the daytime can create a much greater sense of urgency, threat or secrecy, for example. Think also of the symbolic meanings people attach to time in stories: Daybreak can symbolize rebirth, renewal or the return of safety, whereas nighttime could symbolize danger, mystery or death. Even if you don’t explicitly reference the time of day or year in a scene, have a chosen setting in the back of your mind as it will help you find a mood and descriptive detail that will enrich your descriptions.

Show time passing to create urgency or anticipation

Show time passing in your fictional world to help the reader see that the action of your story unfolds within a shifting, changing world. A sense of time passing is especially important where there is urgency. In a murder mystery, for example, each passing sunrise and sunset without a new lead is another gap between investigators and the killer they’re hunting. Play with the passing of time and make it pass quicker where you want to create a sense of time running out, or slower where you want to create a sense of ease, bliss or tranquility.

Make your time period realistic

Readers are quickly taken out of your story when you have a medieval knight saying ‘YOLO’. Unless your characters are supposed to time-travel or mix elements of different eras, make sure your time setting is realistic and consistent. If you’re writing historical fiction in particular, keep a cheat file of every detail about your setting: What people ate, wore and believed and how they spoke, along with how power was divided during your chosen time period.

If your novel takes place across multiple historical time periods, make sure to vary your characters’ voices and preoccupations so that the reader is aware she has been transported to a different setting.

How to write place in a book

The second key element of setting, place, is equally as important as time. If your characters’ actions are anchored in a vivid location, they will seem much more real. Here are some suggestions for creating better place in your story setting:

Research real locations thoroughly

Setting your book in a real place means that you need to understand it: Not only its geography but also what kind of life a traveler would find there. To research a real contemporary location:

  • See if it’s available to explore using Google Street View – your own virtual guided tour will make it much easier to describe
  • Read through information about your chosen real-world setting on regional government websites. You might be able to find historical photographs along with other useful information that will help you understand not only how your story’s setting is now but how it has altered over time, too
  • Read other works of fiction set in the same place and time. Many fiction writers take liberties with describing real places. See the kind of liberties others have taken before you start taking your own

Even if your fictional world is entirely made up – a distant planet in the solar system that has been colonized in the year 5000 or a magical, fantastical world populated by mythical beasts – you can base it on a real world location for inspiration. If the culture of your fantasy tribe is a mix of traditional Scottish highlander culture and contemporary Middle Eastern practices, it’s still your own creation.

Show place with description

‘Show don’t tell’ is repeated so often that you’re probably tired of hearing it. But this is especially true for place description in setting. Instead of just telling the reader that the train rolled into the big city, show the big city. Describe some of its buildings, or its landmarks, or the faces on the station platform. Describe the features that would strike a newcomer most. The better you observe and show place in your novel, the easier it is for readers to enjoy and insert themselves into your fictional world.

Go there if possible

If you’re writing about a real place and you’ve never been there in person, go if it’s at all possible. As writer Suzannah Windsor Freeman says, when creating a story setting sometimes ‘research doesn’t cut it’. Research and looking at photos of the destination combined can give you enough material to create a keen sense of place, but actually walking the streets where your novel is set will help to inspire your storytelling and enrich it with plenty of detail.

How to create mood in your story setting

Creating a precise mood with your setting is important because:

  • It signals to the reader how they should read the unfolding action: Is there a sense of danger or adventure? Is the story reaching a point of higher stakes or is the action winding down? Of course, you can also create plot twists that come out of the blue; turns of plot that are unexpected in your chosen setting (for example a murder in a quiet library).

Some tips for using the elements of setting to establish a clear mood:

Incorporate common connotations of places and times

Elements of setting - mountain adventureDifferent places are associated with different things: A mountain pass might be associated with travel and adventure while the seaside might be associated with relaxation and introspection. Similarly, winter might be associated with introspection or depression while summer is associated with extroversion and a jubilant mood. If you want to emphasize that a negative situation is turning around for your character, you might show the transition to a new life alongside a change in the seasons. Underscoring the action of your novel with mood this way heightens its sense of drama and contrast.

Show how time and place affect the moods of your character

The mood-related aspects of your story’s setting can also be used to show the reader important aspects of your characters. For example, if your character loves to spend time in a library, it could show that they are an intellectual person (or simply a person who loves books or quiet). Think about the relation between place and time and how your character’s behaviour and degree of optimism or negativity might change according to their surrounds.

How  to write context for your story setting

In setting, the context is the set of social, cultural, historical, political and environmental details that are attached to your story’s time and place. Context is an important element of setting because:

  • Context in setting shows what possibilities and limitations are placed on your characters by the place and time in which they find themselves
  • Context in setting gives readers a more detailed sense of your fictional world (readers know how power is divided, how people celebrate new life or mourn death, and other cultural details).

To make the context element of your setting more real:

Think about the particular way society is organised in your setting

Think about the kind of your society your characters live in. From country to country, different cultural practices are the norm. Think about what the practices will be in your novel’s own place and time. Will your main character uphold these traditions or challenge and rebel against them?

Make notes on every aspect of a real-world context

If your novel is set in a real-world time period and location, make notes on all the context-related elements of setting. Do light research and summarize information about:

  • Demographics (what is the social makeup of your setting: What different groups and belief systems occupy the land?)
  • Political system
  • Social views (are most people leftist, centrist or on the right of the spectrum?)
  • Cultural practices (what is the standard greeting? How do people celebrate important occasions? What is considered polite and what is considered offensive?)

Even if your novel doesn’t need to reference each of these elements explicitly (a romance novel most likely won’t explore politics or people’s beliefs in any detail), having an idea of the most dominant viewpoints and ways of life of a place and time will help you to create characters and dialogue that feel right for the setting.

If you’re ready to start finding the elements of setting that will go into your novel, Now Novel’s setting finder can guide you through creating blueprint for where and when your story will take place.

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