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How to: write setting

This blog is part of our new How To series, sharing tips and tricks to help you write better.

Setting refers to the context in which a story takes place. Written well, settings have the power to transport readers to places they never even dreamt of. Written badly and readers will quickly feel disconnected from the plot and its characters.

Sunset over water (Unplash)

The importance of setting

Whether real or imagined, settings help to anchor readers within a story. Settings provide essential context, allowing readers to understand the history, geography and social significance of any given place, as well as its atmosphere.

Readers often connect with settings in the same way they would with a character. Settings can be familiar or strange, calm or exciting, appealing or disturbing. The more familiar a setting becomes, the greater the connection between 'it' and the reader.

Snowy Woods (Unplash) 

A well-written setting allows readers to immerse themselves in the story. The closer they feel to the setting, the more believable it becomes. Characters also have a role to play here. The interaction between characters and their surroundings can determine a reader's attitude towards a setting. Take Narnia, for example. The more embedded the characters become in this magical world the more we, as readers, feel attached to it too.

City Lights (Unplash)

Types of setting

There are three main components of any setting: the time, the place, and the social environment. Depending on the type of story being written, these components may come in and out of focus. Some novels have only one setting while others have many and may even explore multiple time shifts.

Settings can be geographical, historical, and sometimes entirely fictional. Writers may draw upon climate, architecture, local customs, and the connection between characters and locations to create a fully immersive setting.

Mapping out locations (Unplash)

How to create an effective setting

Every writer will have their own method for creating settings. There are however a couple of factors to consider before getting started.

Establish the context


If you are setting your novel in London, for example, you will need to choose a timeframe. This will influence everything to do with that particular setting. You can be as vague or specific as you like, choosing a broad timeframe like 1940s London or something more specific like 10th June 1941 at 2PM. It all depends on whether your story spans multiple years or focuses on a single moment.

Include sensory detail


We live in a sensory world and connect best to descriptions that utilise the senses. Sensory description is key to creating an atmosphere. If, for example, you have chosen to set your story in Victorian England, the rumble fo carriage wheels, the faint odour of manure and the chiming of church bells all help to conjure an atmosphere for the reader.

Sensory wonders (Unplash)

What to avoid

Weak settings tend to have some commonalities:

Too much backstory

Filling page after page with details about the social context of a town or the geographical complexities of a landscape is not usually effective (unless you're writing non-fiction of course). Context and backstory should be handled with care. Readers want to feel like they are part of the setting and the story, not being given a lecture about it.

Heavy description


Too much description can overwhelm readers. As with context, sensory detail should be treated with care. Too many adjectives or too great a focus on one particular detail will simply cause readers to lose interest. Finding a balance of action and description is key to making a setting stand out.

A busy station (Unplash)


Fictional settings that get it right

Let’s think about Hogwarts. J. K. Rowlings fantastical castle features in all the Harry Potter books and its familiarity appeals to readers. Middle Earth is another much-loved setting. Tolkien’s imagination transports readers to another world which, though dangerous, is utterly enthralling.

If we look then at Manderley in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca or the island in Robinson Crusoe, the atmosphere changes. Though equally well-written and thrilling, the settings in these books convey horror and hardship rather than magic and adventure.

Reminiscent of Hogwarts (Unplash)

Real or imagined, dangerous or enchanted, readers fall in love with and respond to all kinds of settings. As a writer, the key is to create a setting that will immerse readers and leave a lasting impression on them.

Which literary settings are your favorite and why? We'd love to know.





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