Why is setting important? Mastering writing time and place

Why is setting important? Now Novel answers the question

Why is setting important? Because setting is the stage for your story and immerses readers in your fictional world. In a novel, setting refers to the place and time (or multiple places and times) in which the story unfolds. Read on to find out more about how to create setting in your novel:

Why is setting important? The functions of time and place in fiction

Setting is more than simply a geographical location or time period that makes a nice backdrop to a story. Setting has many functions:

The importance of place in story settings

Why is setting important? Now Novel on forest settingsTime and place are the two fundamental ingredients of a story’s setting. Place in a novel has multiple purposes and effects:

  • The place you choose creates mood and atmosphere (a dark, eerie wood creates a very different sense of danger or mystery compared to a bright, open plain)
  • Place in your novel determines parameters for your characters’ lives and actions (a character living in a small mining town might have very different perceptions and options compared to a character who lives in a large city)
  • Place can evolve and change as the story progresses. It can be used to show the passage of time, making your novel feel more real (for example, in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, a grand manor remembered from the protagonist’s youth becomes dilapidated, creating a sense of a fading era)

Time is an equally important aspect of setting:

The importance of time in setting

It would be incomplete to answer the question ‘why is setting important?’ without any mention of time. Time in a story also has multiple purposes and effects:

  • Time also sets parameters: The time setting of your novel impacts what types of lives your characters can lead and what choices they can make. Characters living in Victorian England will have very different choices and lifestyles available to them compared to characters living in contemporary England (women, for example, are far less pressured to marry and be homemakers in modern-day England, although this varies between cultures)
  • Time in your novel’s setting determines what kind of technology is available and what type of descriptive detail will feature (historical fiction often describes antiquated items that readers would otherwise not be familiar with)
  • You can set your novel in multiple time periods to show how your characters (and their society) change

Time and place can give your novel a frame of reference  that will add to your novel’s sense of authenticity and credibility.

Now that we’ve clarified some of the functions of time and place in fiction, here are five tips on getting time and place right:

1: Research and plot out the geography of your story

Research the place you are writing about thoroughly. If you’re writing about Ancient Rome, you’ll need to have an idea of the architecture, the parts of the city where different citizens would typically spend their time, and so forth.

As an exercise, plot out the actual geography of your story because this will make your characters’ lives and movements easier to imagine. Draw a rough map of the primary areas where your story takes place.

This is particularly important if you are setting your novel in a real place. Even if you are inventing your own fictional world entirely, gain a keen sense of how your world is laid out to aid your imagination.

2: Use place like you would a character

We give characters individual voices to make them feel real, so that the cast members of our novels don’t feel like two-dimensional carbon copies of each other. Just like a character, a place in your novel should have its own ‘voice’. Write place like you would write a character:

  • Focus on physical descriptions that make your novel’s setting memorable and distinctive: are there significant landmarks? Is there a general atmosphere of decay and poorly-maintained infrastructure, or is your setting a thriving, booming city?
  • Develop place like you would a character: How does the place setting of your novel change over the course of the story? How do characters’ actions and choices affect their surrounds and vice versa? How does society as a whole relate to the setting? Is it gritty and harsh or do people live in harmony with their surrounds? Do people’s experiences and ideas about their setting differ according to their social group or class?

3: Use Google Street View to tour an unknown real-world setting

This advice comes courtesy of Suzannah Windsor Freeman’s excellent post on writing about place, ‘7 tips for writing about places you’ve never been’. As Freeman cautions, writing about a real world place you haven’t visited is risky. You might use outdated place information or settings that are tourists traps and not places actual locals would visit.

Freeman suggests several useful strategies for writing about a place setting you’ve never seen in person:

4: Combine available factual and fictional sources for your novel’s setting

Importance of setting - using Google Street View for story researchEven though you know why setting is important, you might struggle to find all the details you need for your story. When you are writing about a bygone era or lost civilization’s city in particular, you can’t exactly take a Google Street View tour. In this case, borrow from factual books about the lives, art and architecture of your chosen place and time period. If possible, find books written by people who inhabited your chosen place in the time you’re writing about.

If, for example, you were writing about ancient Greece in the year 350 BC, you could read the writings of people who lived during this time (Aristotle, for example) to get a sense of how people expressed themselves and felt about their world. Because Aristotle was a great scholar and philosopher, it would be sensible to try find accounts by more ordinary writers, so that you can get a multi-perspective idea of what it was like to live in this particular place, in this particular time.

When archival materials are scarce, you can also rely on the work of reputable authors who have based their fiction in the same setting. You can be sure that a writer whose fiction has been praised for its authenticity will be a goldmine of ideas for the kind of descriptive details you could use to bring your story’s setting to life.

5: Plan out the individual elements of your book’s setting

To create a believable setting for your novel, plan each element of setting consciously. Courtney Carpenter’s blog post for Writer’s Digest on the basic elements of setting in a story gives the following list of basic setting elements:

  • Locale: A category including country, region, city as well as smaller locations (a school, a hospital, or another specific setting)
  • Time of year: this may be seasonal (e.g. Christmas in Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol)
  • Time of day: Think about how the time of day in which a scene is set can influence the tone and atmosphere. Nighttime can be more ominous or eerie than the day
  • Climate: Think about the natural elements of your setting as well as the man-made ones

Carpenter includes additional elements of setting such as man-made geography and mood and atmosphere. Consider each of these items and how one choice can convey the mood you want better than an alternative. Plan out your elements of setting. You can make notes on these details for each scene before you draft it, so that you can keep these details in mind and write a scene that readers can easily picture.

To sum up: There are multiple answers to the question ‘why is setting important?’ It’s important because it shapes the mood and tone of your story, because the time and places we live in affect our perceptions and actions and because time and place are the basic elements of a novel that give readers a vivid mental picture of the world your characters move in.

If you want to refine your setting ideas, write a book with the help of the Now Novel process now.

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