The Setting of a Novel

The setting of your novel is a critical element that needs careful consideration and planning. It is the backdrop to your story, and requires as much thought as you give to the characters and storyline. There are several aspects that you need to take into account, including the time period, the location, the mood to be evoked and the level of detail to be used in your descriptions.

Time Period

Your story can be set in the present day, the past or perhaps the future. If set in the past, you will need to become an expert on that period of history – or make use of your existing knowledge. If you are creating a fantasy word, consider whether that is set in the past, present or future and what elements are similar to the real world. The present day appears to be an easier choice, but can present its own challenges. Be aware of modern trends such as technology and current events that you might need to include.


What locations will you use in your novel? Will it be set on a tropical island, in a crowded city or a remote research station in the Antartic? You might decide to set it inside one house or a small village, or in several widely-contrasting countries. Establish and investigate the geographical locations you intend to use, or invent them if you’re creating a fantasy world. Be aware of the scenery, the climate, and the peculiarities of life in your chosen settings.


You may have decided to set a story in your home town, so that everything will be familiar to you. Alternatively, your characters might be racing around the world, populating an elaborate fantasy land or living in the past. Think about how complex your setting may need to be. You could choose to set the entire story in one room, or you might relish the challenge of bringing an elaborate world to life.


Your settings are conveyed by your descriptions. When you start to write your first draft you are faced with the decision of how much detail to include. Avoid getting bogged down in long, elaborate paragraphs that describe everything your characters might see. Try to err on the side of short, sharp prose that conveys the essential elements.

The requirements can vary according to the genre. Literary fiction often includes long and creative descriptions, and fantasy fiction includes the portrayal of highly elaborate worlds. Thrillers and action-adventure stories tend to keep descriptions to a minimum, although they often include multiple locations and exotic settings.

Give your readers enough description to appreciate and understand your setting, but never let it interfere with the flow of your story. Don’t give them a chance to say that the story is slowed down by too many unnecessary details.

Evoking a Mood

Think about the mood of your story – a subject I’ll write about in another article. What sort of mood does your setting invoke? Decide if it will suit the mood you want to create for your novel. A village in the Cotswolds would be ideal for a cozy mystery, while a forbidding castle might suit a horror story.

The Interplay of Story and Setting

Think about your choice of settings. Does each one make the most of your storyline? In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte told a story of savage passions set in a landscape of windswept moors. Her setting was the perfect complement to the story and integral to the raw emotions of her characters. Your challenge is to see if you can achieve the same with your novel.

What do you think?

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