Definition of Setting

Setting is a literary device that allows the writer of a narrative to establish the time, location, and environment in which it takes place. This is an important element in a story, as the setting indicates to the reader when and where the action takes place. As a result, the setting of a narrative or story helps the reader picture clear and relevant details. In addition, setting enhances the development of a story’s plot and characters by providing a distinct background.

In literature, setting can be specific or general in terms of geographical location and historical time period. A specific, or integral, setting refers to an exact location and time period established by the writer. This information can be directly imparted to the reader or implied in the narrative. A backdrop setting is more general, vague, or nondescript, which makes the story more universal for readers. The setting of a literary work may also be a fictional location or world, a future time and place, or it may be unknown.

For example, the fairy tale “Cinderella” traditionally features a backdrop setting, such as long ago in a faraway kingdom. However, a modern interpretation of “Cinderella” might feature an integral setting such as New York City to enhance aspects of the story’s plot, characters, and theme.

Examples of the Importance of Setting as a Literary Device

Setting is an important literary device, as its purpose is to create a “world” in which a story takes place. Setting can also influence the plot of a story and the actions of the characters. Here are some examples of the importance of setting as a literary device:

  • helps establish the mood and/or tone of a story
  • provides context for other story elements such as plot, characters, and theme
  • reinforces the narrative by providing structure and function in the story
  • enhances individual scenes within a story’s plot

Occasionally, the “presence” of a story’s setting, in terms of a time period, geographic location, or environment, can feel to the reader like an additional character. This can make for clever use of this literary device in portraying a particular time and/or place with a personality all on its own in a story.

Common Examples of Cities Frequently Used as Setting

Certain cities are frequently used as settings in literary works. By setting a narrative or story in a well-known city, the writer can be relatively certain that the reader will have a general sense and understanding of the locale, including geographical characteristics, landmarks, culture, etc. This can alleviate some burdens for the writer in terms of description and allow for the focus to remain on the story’s plot and characters.

Here are some common examples of cities that are frequently used as settings in literature:

  • New York City
  • London
  • Los Angeles
  • New Orleans
  • Chicago
  • Berlin
  • Las Vegas
  • Vienna
  • Seattle
  • Tokyo
  • Nashville
  • Baltimore
  • Paris
  • Barcelona
  • Rome
  • Miami
  • Detroit
  • Amsterdam
  • Boston
  • Hong Kong

Common Examples of Historical Time Periods Frequently Used as Setting

Certain historical time periods are frequently used as settings in literary works as well. By setting a narrative or story in a well-known era, the writer can also be relatively certain that the reader will have a general sense and understanding of the history, events, historical figures, etc. This can additionally alleviate some burdens for the writer in terms of description and allow for the focus to remain on the story’s plot and characters.

Here are some common examples of historical time periods (not in chronological order) that are frequently used as settings in literature:

  • Ancient Greece
  • Dark Ages
  • Industrial Revolution
  • Middle Ages
  • Renaissance
  • Age of Exploration
  • Classical Era
  • Turn of the century
  • Roaring ’20s
  • World War I
  • Westward Expansion
  • World War II
  • Cold War
  • Victorian Age
  • Contemporary

Common Examples of Environments Frequently Used as Setting

Certain types of environments are frequently used as settings in literary works in addition to specific geographical locations. By setting a narrative or story in a well-known environment, the writer can be relatively certain that the reader will have a general sense and understanding of that environment’s characteristics, such as terrain, climate, culture, etc. This can alleviate some burdens for the writer as well in terms of description and allow for the focus to remain on the story’s plot and characters.

Here are some common examples of environments that are frequently used as settings in literature:

  • beach
  • mountains
  • plains
  • Wilderness
  • desert
  • island
  • outer space
  • urban/city
  • rural/farmland
  • jungle
  • war zone
  • countryside
  • bayou
  • Southern plantation
  • ship at sea

How to Understand and Describe Setting in Writing

The idea of understanding the setting depends on the storyline, characters, and events. These three are important elements that define a setting. It is because every setting has some specific qualities where certain people live and interact. Also, setting impacts them and their actions which define their lives. Some other less significant elements of setting are landscape, type of land, climate, weather, social conventions, and cultural surroundings. When writers and readers understand all these elements, it becomes easy for them to write about setting and describe it in words.

Backdrop and Integral Setting

Although the backdrop and integral setting sound the same, they are different. An integral setting is a specific place associated with some specific characters, having a specific role to play in the events of the story, a backdrop setting is general. It is could be any town given in a story without any specific quality and feature. An integral setting has all the necessary elements that define a setting, a backdrop setting has only common elements given through generic names.

Five Elements of Setting or Aspects of Setting

A setting within a piece of literature must have five elements or aspects. Although there are several other aspects that are necessary, the following five are fundamental elements of a setting. The first one is locale which means the country or the region. The second is the time which also includes the timing which means day, night, or month of the year. The third is climate, the fourth is geographical features and the fifth is population, society, and culture.

Fictional and Non-Fictional Settings

A fictional setting is a type of setting that exists only in imagination and there is no connection of this setting with reality. The non-fictional setting is a type of setting that exists in reality. For example, Eldorado does not exist nor do some cities mentioned in various novels. However, Paris and London do exist and they are real cities mentioned in several novels and short stories as the settings of the storylines. This difference, however, evaporates when some real place is mentioned in connection with fictional characters.

Setting and Exposition

As the term shows, exposition means detailed descriptions of the characters, settings, and the storyline in the beginning of the novels or short stories, setting is part of the exposition. The exposition just explains settings, giving its details. It also shows how events are going to unfold. However, the setting only shows characters having certain relationships with the land, geographical location, social fabric, and flora and fauna.

Difference between Temporal and Spatial Setting

Spatial refers to space that means the place, its geography, its location, its social fabric, its flora, and fauna, etc. Temporal, on the other hand, refers to a time that means the specific time of the year or the month, or the day when the event in question takes place. Whereas spatial setting shows the location and the place, the temporal setting shows when the events have taken place in that specific place. Both settings are used interactively and in conjunction with each other. No one can be used interchangeably or exclusively.

Examples of Setting in Literature

In literature, setting provides the reader an image and idea of time and place that frames the action of a story and can reveal aspects of its characters. By using the setting as a literary device, the writer can help the reader visualize the action of the work, which adds credibility and authenticity to the story. In addition, a setting can create and sustain the illusion of imaginary places and worlds in fiction as well as time periods in the future or prehistoric past. Without an indication of the setting, a story would lack significant context for the reader, potentially reducing their enjoyment and/or understanding of the work.

Here are some examples of setting in well-known works of literature:

Example 1: Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

In Vonnegut’s short story, the narrator reveals the setting at the outset. This establishes a significant amount of information for the reader before the action of the story even begins. The narrator stipulates the year, which indicates to the reader that the time period of the story is in the future but not terribly distant. In addition, the story is clearly set in the United States as indicated by the mention of the constitutional amendments.

As well as directly establishing the time and location of the story, Vonnegut also utilizes setting as a literary device to impart to the reader a sense of the story’s environment. In this case, there is a strong refrain of mandated equality in terms of the physical and intellectual characteristics of this future population that is further enforced by a national agency. As a result, the reader is able to instantly picture the background in which the events of the story and the movement of the characters will take place.

Example 2: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

That’s the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.

Faulkner created his own fictional county in Mississippi, Yoknapatawpha County, in which to set nearly all of his novels and numerous short stories. Yoknapatawpha was inspired by and based on Lafayette County in Oxford, Mississippi, with which Faulkner was familiar. Faulkner himself considered Yoknapatawpha County as apocryphal in the sense that many of his readers believe it to be a real place. In fact, his novel Absalom, Absalom! includes a map of the fictional country that was drawn by Faulkner.

By creating this realistic yet fictional Mississippi county, Faulkner was able to incorporate several aspects of this setting across many of his works. In this passage from his novel As I Lay Dying, for example, the atmosphere of Yoknapatawpha is as much a presence as the characters, and Faulkner underscores the reciprocal influence and shaping of the novel’s setting and characters. In addition, by using Yoknapatawpha to set so many of his literary works, Faulkner’s readers find familiarity with and understanding of the physical location and environment in which the narrative takes place. This allows readers to focus on the action and characters of the story.

Example 3: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

In Coleridge’s poem, he juxtaposes two very different and distinct settings. At the outset of the poem, the setting is a wedding in which the guests are joyful, merrily dancing, eating, and drinking. This celebratory environment is in stark contrast to the setting of the mariner’s story within the poem, which he relays to a wedding guest outside the venue.

This passage of the poem indicates the setting of the Mariner’s tale, as the boat travels to the icy Antarctic. The oppressive presence and noise of the ice create a barren environment that is cold to the existence of living things. This emphasis on the environmental setting in Coleridge’s poem not only draws the reader away from the warmth and life-affirming nature of the wedding, but it also reflects for the reader the danger and isolation faced by sailors at sea. In fact, the reader becomes part of the setting described by the mariner just as the wedding guest becomes part of the mariner’s story through the poet’s description of the setting and events. This allows for a stronger connection between the poem and the reader.

Synonyms of Setting

The distant synonyms for setting are as follows: position, situation, background, backdrop, milieu, environs, habitat, place, location, spot, locale, context, frame, area, neighborhood, locus, district, and region.