Story settings

What is story setting? Mastering writing time and place

What is the setting of a story? Setting has two broad elements: Place and time. In a novel, it’s where and when the events of your chapters unfold. Read on for tips on creating detailed, involving settings in your story: 

What is the setting of a story? Setting has two broad elements: Place and time. In a novel, it’s where and when the events of your chapters unfold. Read on for tips on creating detailed, involving settings in your story

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

Setting is more than simply a geographical location or time period that serves as a backdrop to characters’ actions. Fictional settings have many uses:

Using place in story settings:

‘Place’ in a story has multiple purposes and effects:

  • The places you set your scenes contribute mood and tone (a dark, eerie wood creates a very different sense of danger or mystery compared to a bright, open plain)
  • Places restrict (or open) possibilities 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)
  • Places can evolve and change as your story progresses. You can use their evolution to show the changing circumstances affecting your characters’ views and options (for example, in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, the narrator visits a grand manor he knew in his youth. He finds it crumbling due to the onslaught of the war. This creates melancholic nostalgia. Waugh uses changing physical setting to convey the idea of loss.)

Time is an equally important element of setting:

Using time in setting

It would be incomplete to answer ‘what is story setting?’ without including time. Time in a story, for example the historical period or epoch the story spans, is equally vital:

  • Like place, time (for example, the social attitudes in the Victorian era) restricts or rather determines, to some extent, possibilities for your characters. The time setting of your novel impacts what types of lives your characters can lead and what choices they can make. Setting drives plot. 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)
  • Time in your novel’s setting determines what kind of technology is available (historical fiction often describes old-fashioned tools such as manual clothes washers that most modern city-dwelling readers wouldn’t know)
  • Time in your story setting is equally useful for showing and underscoring changes that contribute to character and plot development (e.g. changes of government, scientific discovery, social beliefs and customs)

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

Writing richer story settings | Now Novel

Let’s unpack these ideas:

1: Research and plan places in your story

Research the place you are writing about thoroughly, if it’s a real-world location. If, for example, you’re writing about Ancient Rome, find books or websites that outline Ancient Roman architecture, society, customs and beliefs.

One way to form a deeper sense of where your story will take place is to draw a rough map of primary locations. This document could give you an idea of how characters will get from place to place. Create a novel outline using the Now Novel dashboard and outline core settings for your story using easy prompts.

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. Many fantasy novels begin with maps of peninsulas or continents, lending the mythical world a stronger sense of tangible, measurable reality.

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:

  • Create physical descriptions that make place memorable and distinctive: What is the setting of your story famous for? Are there significant landmarks? Is there a general atmosphere of decay, or is your setting a thriving, young village or city?
  • Develop place: How will your setting change over the course of your story? Do characters’ actions and choices affect their surrounds and vice versa? How does society as a whole relate to its surrounds? Is there climate change? What effects will time have on place and how will this affect your characters in turn?

Brainstorm vivid settings

Brainstorm ideas and settings in structured steps, then plan your story’s scenes and world.


3: Use Google Street View and other tools to plan story settings

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:

If you’re creating a made-up place for your novel, imagine what Google Street View would show you if you moved along main streets or alleyways of your setting.

Writing setting - quote by Sabaa Tahir | Now Novel

4: Combine factual and fictional sources

When you are writing a novel about a bygone era or lost civilization, 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.

When archival materials are scarce, you can also rely on the work of good authors who have based their fiction in the same setting. Even if writing about invented settings, look for details and ideas you can borrow from other places.

5: Build individual elements of place and time

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: E.g. 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

Make notes on the most important elements of setting for each scene before you draft it, so that you can keep these details in mind and furnish your scene with extra, vivid detail.

Stories that are mostly characters’ inner monologue or dialogue with no sense of their surrounds can feel adrift, without anything to anchor them. Use the suggestions above to place your characters in the world and show the two-way effects between characters  and their environment.

Brainstorm and refine your setting ideas using Now Novel’s simple, step-by-step story building tools.

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

6 replies on “What is story setting? Mastering writing time and place”

Thank you for this wonderful article. I am finishing my BSN in the fall of 2021 and plan to continue on to get a master’s in medical writing. So all the writing information I can get will help.

That sounds an interesting combination of degrees, Polly. It’s a pleasure! Best of luck with your studies.

Great info here, especially how setting can limit, thus buffer the plot. For me, this helps me with the overall focus. Just as I do with a character, I profile my setting. Usually with an email so I can attach images, etc. What is the economy like, how about their belief system? Are they dependent on themselves like an agrarian community might be, or do they have strong connections outside the “setting”? What’s the social setup. Uptown New York City versus small town, same-similar? The politics and government, all make up the ether of a setting. I rarely incorporate all to this; my settings are pretty basic and bland, but knowing what’s what helps me make better choices in the planning and execution of the plot.

Hi Jake, thank you for sharing your process. You’re right, even if you don’t use everything no process spent getting to know the world in your imagination with clearer vision is wasted. It benefits the story ultimately.

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