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Setting—The Place and Time of Story

October 15, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 23, 2013

There’s a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us . . .

There’s a time for us,
Some day a time for us . . . 

There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us . . . 

 A big thank you to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for the wonderfully magnificent “Somewhere” from West Side Story. Not only is it a great song, it makes a strong illustration for setting, the place and time of story.

While plot and characters draw readers to fiction, stories must take place somewhere and at some time. And where and when they take place can ultimately be as important as who’s involved and what happens.

Setting is the place and time of story.

Setting can be detailed or vague, overwhelming or barely there, nuanced or heavy-handed.

Setting can be so fully written that readers can feel the cloying mugginess of humidity on a woman’s face, hear the long whistle of the 10 p.m. train as a father makes one more round to check on his children before turning in himself, almost taste the warm beer and sweet funnel cake of a county fair.

We use setting to give characters a place to play out their actions and dialogue, so they don’t become talking heads adrift in the mists of a vague nowhere land. How unsettling for readers to follow a character’s thoughts or story dialogue for several pages, all the while uncertain about location. How odd that a character would talk or think for pages or paragraph after paragraph without interacting with the objects around him, as if there were none.

Setting details ground characters in a location. Those details allow the reader to imagine characters in a bar or secret lab or alien planet or a killer’s living room.

They don’t have to be overdone, these setting details. But they should be sketched in. At least those important for the story and the characters’ path through it.

Setting enhances that willing suspension of disbelief that the writer strives to create for the reader and that the reader hopes will last for the length of a novel.

Without a sufficient setting, characters cannot walk streets or stroll boulevards or race through alleys. They can’t toy with knick-knacks on an end table if the writer hasn’t written them a building with a room that boasts an end table teetering under the weight of knick-knacks.

If no time period has been established, how is the reader to know if the Ford Fairlane driven by the protagonist is new, hot off the assembly line, or if it’s a classic, painstakingly refurbished?

If time isn’t established early in a story, readers can be rudely surprised to discover what they thought to be a contemporary tale actually takes place in 1862. And readers expecting contemporary may not take kindly to having their expectations shattered. (You can surprise readers, of course, in many ways during the course of a story. Yet misleading them about time or place—or merely failing to be clear about either—is not a good way to surprise them.)

Setting can be easily set up, so there’s no reason to leave it out or not change it as the story needs change.

Setting can be established by music on a radio (or electronic device). Clothing can reveal time or place, as can landmarks, current events, products used by characters, and building types.

A writer need only sketch the barest of details to enable readers to understand setting. Or, a writer may give setting the same lavish attention he gives his characters, maybe imagining setting as a character.

However setting is conveyed, it does need to be addressed.

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Particulars of setting can include—

Locale—planet, country, city, building, field, woods, vehicle, at sea, in space. Any place where you can put characters and action.

Weather—rain, snow, sunshine, fog, temperatures, hurricanes, droughts, and so forth

Objects—any physical items a character can touch or use or refer to (think props)

Era—a time period (medieval Europe) or a moment (the sixties in the U.S.)

Time—An age or epoch or a specific year, even a time of day or a season

Culture—laws, social practices, societal taboos, societal expectations, politics and government, entertainment/games, religious practices, education, war, mores, technology

Geography—type and/or condition of land to include mountains, plains, lowlands, islands, cloud cities, volcanoes, and so on. Terrain. Plant and animal life.

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Setting details can change as a character advances through the story, yet once the setting has been established, you can cut back on references to it, perhaps just touching lightly on setting details to remind readers where the characters are.

You can also use the objects of setting to keep characters attached to their setting, so they seem more like real people responding to their environment and less like actors who seldom touch or use the props around them. Give characters props they would use and should use as they move through their adventures. Make setting solid and real to your characters.

Anything that addresses location in either time or place is setting detail. It’s this detail—and her interaction with it—that makes a character seem real. It’s setting detail that makes fiction real to the reader.

Objects used by or noticed by characters should mean something for the story. They should reveal character or advance plot or reflect mood or set tone. The can even have an impact on conflict.

Include setting detail of different varieties for your characters. Put characters in a time and place that works for their stories. Consider mentioning a moment from history—even if it’s fictional history—to ground characters and readers in a location that holds meaning for them, a place of importance in their lives.

Give thought to setting so that it works for the story and not against it.

Use setting to make fiction authentic.

There is a time and a place for your story events to unfold.

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For fun, Somewhere by Idina Menzel and Lea Michele (Glee)

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