Setting is the place or time in which the story takes place. Without setting the reader cannot put the story into context and will most likely be confused. For example, if we didn’t know that The Buddha in the Attic took place just at the breakout of the Second World War, then the readers would’ve likely been confused when the Japanese were being shuffled into interment camps. Perhaps the reader may have even thought that Buddha in the Attic was some sort of futuristic sci-fi, but luckily we get a clear understanding of the setting so there is no confusion.
Setting is best described using detail about what’s around the character. What does your character see? Where is your character? Be there with your character, see what they see, and you will write a good setting. There are other elements to setting, such as weather, season, and sensory detail. It’s important to add the five senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste) within descriptions so it gives your writing a more three-dimensional feel and gives your character more validity as a character.
While describing setting is an important aspect, there are times where it could seem a little cluttered. This can be easily fixed by incorporating other writing elements, such as dialogue, to break up the longer paragraphs. Setting should always be an underlying stream throughout the novel, because setting is constant. The easiest way to remind your reader of setting is just to incorporate little tidbits here and there, so it’s subtly incorporated and not overdone.
Here’s an example of setting in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone :
“The inside was horrible; it smelled strongly of seaweed, the wind whistled through the gaps in the wooden walls, and the fireplace was damp and empty. There were only two rooms” (Rowling 44). It continues, “As night fell the promised storm blew up around them. Spray from the high waves splattered the walls of the hut and a fierce wind rattled the filthy windows. Aunt Petunia found a few moldy blankets in the second room and made a bed for Dudley on the moth-eaten sofa. She and Uncle Vernon went off to the lumpy bed next door, and Harry was left to find the softest bit of floor he could and to curl up under the thinnest, most ragged blanket” (Rowling 45).
This example creates a clear vision of where we are in the story as well as evokes the senses. We know this place is run-down, damp, smelly, and small. The setting is as miserable as Harry. J.K. does a simple, yet magnificent job of showing the reader setting vs just telling us that the room was ‘wet and cramped’. Definitely would’ve lost its appeal then.
Another way to look at setting, someone told me once, is like this:
eg of inside a car
Look at setting like a layered target. The center is a very detailed portion of setting and the further out you go on the target the broader the setting is. So, in the picture I provided I said let’s use the setting of the inside of a car. The innermost detail is the character sitting in the passenger seat. This would be like an extreme close up on the character if you’re a movie buff. The character may notice what they’re doing with their hands, or perhaps the glove box. The point of view here is very tight and detailed. The next point would be the entire front seat of the car. Now your character may notice whoever is driving the windshield, radio, steering wheel, etc. Then they notice the backseat. Perhaps there is trash and blankets back there that they notice. Then they look outside the car and note the street, the people, the town, etc, etc.
Setting is an essential aspect of storytelling. The readers crave a time and a place, so they have a better understanding of what is going on in the novel. I recommend reading Write Great Fiction – Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle as well as Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.
Otsuka, Julie. The Buddha in the Attic. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Print.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997. Print.