I. What is Setting?
Setting is the time and place (or when and where) of the story. It’s a literary element of literature used in novels, short stories, plays, films, etc., and usually introduced during the exposition (beginning) of the story, along with the characters. The setting may also include the environment of the story, which can be made up of the physical location, climate, weather, or social and cultural surroundings.
There are various ways that time and place indicate setting. Time can cover many areas, such as the character’s time of life, the time of day, time of year, time period such as the past, present, or future, etc. Place also covers a lot of areas, such as a certain building, room in a building, country, city, beach, in a mode of transport such as a car, bus, boat, indoors or out, etc. The setting of a story can change throughout the plot. The environment includes geographical location such as beach or mountains, the climate and weather, and the social or cultural aspects such as a school, theatre, meeting, club, etc.
II. Examples of Setting
A simple example to understand setting is the Disney movie “Cinderella.” The setting starts out as
Time: Cinderella as a young girl, long ago in the past
Place: Cinderella’s home in a kingdom far away
After her father dies, the time aspect of setting changes, skipping roughly ten years into the future. Understanding this change in time helps in keeping up with the story.
Time: Cinderella as a young woman, long ago in the past
Place: Cinderella’s home in a kingdom, in her bedroom and in the kitchen
Read this example below to see how setting is written into a story.
As the sun set in the evening sky, Malcolm slowly turned and walked toward his home. All was silent and still. Through the window, he could see his older brother James watching a football game on the TV. James was home from his first year of college in the city. It was lonely at times, but Malcolm felt it was rather nice to not be in James’ shadow during his senior year of high school.
Time: evening, senior year of high school, and modern times (they have a TV)
Place: Malcolm’s home, and possibly the suburbs or country (his brother has gone to the city for school).
This video illustrates how both time and place of setting must be clear in understanding the story. The aliens try to find the setting in a story, but forgot one aspect.
III. Types of Setting
There are two types of setting, each having its own purpose.
A. Backdrop setting
Have you ever read a story, but found it difficult to figure out what time period in which the story was written or where it is? The story probably had a backdrop setting. The story is timeless and can happen at any point in history or anywhere. The focus is on the lesson or message being delivered. Many fairy tales and children’s stories have backdrop settings. “Winnie the Pooh” would be an example. Since the lessons that the characters learn is the point rather than the time period, it’s hard to tack a “past, present, or future” on the time aspect of the setting. It could also be any town or country, which means children anywhere can relate to it.
B. Integral setting
With an integral setting (integral means to be a part of or important to), the time and place are important to the story. For example, a story dealing with a historical setting will have a direct impact on the plot. A story that happens in the 1800s will not have technology, so the characters will have to write a letter, ride a horse or take a carriage to visit each other; they cannot travel long distances in one day as we do now with cars, buses, and planes. This will have a direct impact on the events of the story, especially if there is distance involved.
IV. The Importance of Setting
Setting gives context to the characters’ actions in a story line. It can also create the mood (how the reader or viewer feels). It’s easier to understand why the characters in the story are doing what they’re doing when we know where the they are. The time of day, time of year, and ages of the characters will also affect how they act and what they say.
All forms of literature will have some form of setting; even backdrop settings have an age range of the characters, which is part of time, and a location, either indoors or out, for example. Without a setting, readers and viewers cannot follow a story plot.
V. Examples of Setting in Literature
All good literature uses setting. No story can exist without an element of time or place. Here are some popular examples.
Elie Wiesel wrote “Night” in the 1950s, but his biography has been read by millions through the decades and is still a popular book in schools. It’s the true and tragic account of Wiesel’s Jewish family during the Holocaust of World War II.
AND THEN, one day all foreign Jews were expelled from Sighet. And Moishe the Beadle was a foreigner. Crammed into cattle cars by the Hungarian police, they cried silently. Standing on the station platform, we too were crying.
The train disappeared over the horizon; all that was left was thick, dirty smoke.
Behind me, someone said, sighing, ‘What do you expect?
That’s w a r… (Wiesel 1958).
In this passage, we have the name of the town and a location within the town (place). We know that it’s a war (time). Since we know Wiesel survived World War II, we know it must be in the 1940s (time). The description of human beings “crammed into cattle cars” creates a mood of sympathy that such a place could be used for people.
This next example is from J. K. Rowling’s book “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” Rowling’s series of Harry Potter books are popular with young adults and have been made into films.
October arrived, spreading a damp chill over the grounds and into the castle. Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was kept busy by a sudden spate of colds among the staff and students. Her Pepperup potion worked instantly, though it left the drinker smoking at the ears for several hours afterward. Ginny Weasley, who had been looking pale, was bullied into taking some by Percy. The steam pouring from under her vivid hair gave the impression that her whole head was on fire (Rowling 1999).
This excerpt sets a gloomy mood with its setting, particularly with the words “damp chill.” It’s October and the characters are students, so we assume young (time). They are in a school dormitory, which is a castle (place). Since the season is fall, we know that the students are getting sick because of the cold. The idea that they are using a “potion” hints that the time period is long ago in the past or some fantasy time period.
VI. Examples of Setting in Pop Culture
One area of pop culture that relies heavily on strong settings is the video game industry. The YouTube video below illustrates the importance of setting in games. As computer technology has improved over the years, video games have progressed from boring, simple games to intense and complex gaming experiences all due to the use of setting. Video games now have realistic backgrounds, whereas the first video games (as far back as the 1950s) had blank or static (unchanging) backgrounds. There are popular games designed in all time periods – past, present, and future – and in all areas of the world, including underwater and in outer space, as well as fantasy worlds.
A second example of setting within pop culture is Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. This is a novel that’s been made into a successful series. Setting is a large basis of the story. The video below shows intro to the series, which starts out with a map of the kingdom, an indication that setting will play an important part in the story.
To help readers understand the place of setting, Martin has a map in the front of the book so that they can see the location of plot events as the story unfolds. Viewers watching the series are able to see the settings change by following the scenes. Some settings are in castles, others in war camps. These different places of the setting will affect how the characters act. Characters in the castle are able to move about freely, may have servants doing things for them (or they are the servants doing for others), and can dress for comfort. However, the characters in the war camps have to move carefully, do things for themselves, and must dress for safety from instruments of war, such as swords. It’s clear that time and place move the plot along.
VII. Related Terms
Environment is the physical location. It includes conditions such as the geographical properties (water, sand, mountains, etc.), the cultural and social settings (school, place of worship, community, business, museum, theatre, etc.), and weather or climate (storm, rain, sunshine, desert, mountain range, plains, etc.). Most times, environment plays a large part in the setting of any story.
Setting is an important literary device that is often taken for granted or easily misunderstood. Creating clear depictions of time and place in a story creates mood and moves the story along. Without setting, the plot line would be confusing and boring. A key element of a strong setting is using descriptive details, pulling on the reader’s senses.