What Is The Setting In A Novel? Definition & Examples

Define Third Person Point Of View Narrative

When a new author decides to write a novel, he or she tackles it in various ways. The enthusiastic but inexperienced newbie has a general idea of his story, which is often the beginning and the ending, and the rest is a bit fuzzy.

Someone who has taken the time to educate themselves quickly sees that planning is massively important. The basics are the foundations for a successful book. Questions such as ‘What is the setting in a novel?’ will reap their own benefits.

The novel setting, along with the theme, genre, plot and characters are the backbone of the story and should be known intimately well before you start writing. As the creator, it may seem that little explanation is required, but that’s a function of your position and it’s always the reader’s point of view the author needs to consider.

It’s true to say that the importance of the setting can depend on your novel content, but in all cases it pays to give it your attention.

Book Setting – An Art To Learn

Every story is set somewhere and is established within the norms of the society in which the characters live. The first choice is to set the novel within a modern-day society that actually exists on planet Earth and the second is to create your own, either a fantasy world or on another planet.

novel settingIf you choose a civilization and culture close to your own, then you’ll be on pretty safe ground with brief descriptions, particularly if your readers live in the same culture.

However, if it is set in a foreign country, or far in the past, then a considerable amount of in-depth research may be needed to give an authentic feel to you prose.

It’s crucial that your character’s behavior reflects the standards or the society they live in, so you need to know it thoroughly. If your readers find discrepancies, and your credibility is lost, then it will be lost for the duration of the novel – if they read until the end, that is.

The kind of relationships people have within your setting relate directly to the prevalent culture and has a direct bearing on outcome of the conflicts popping up throughout the story.

Choosing A Fantasy Story Setting – World Building

Creating a world from your imagination is a great way to go, but take care: No research is required, but you really, really have to know your onions. In an ordinary, modern-day setting, an author doesn’t need to describe a sparrow too much. We’ve all seen one, after all.

Now try to describe the eight legged, lizard-like creature that skits across the floor in you fantasy novel. It stands to reason that the reader has no idea what these figments of your imagination look like, so as the creator, you have to inform them in such a way that they become real.

If you do decide to create a civilization that is completely new and doesn’t resemble an existing, it’s very important to outline all the facets of the social world surrounding the characters. Their interactions, for example, will be a function of their culture and may not be at all like ours.

Answer questions that your reader may have about this new world.

  • What is the environment like?
  • Describe the social structure in some detail, as far as it pertains to the story.
  • Do they use money?
  • Are people rich and poor?
  • Who governs the people and how?
  • What are the most important problems they face in day to day living?
  • Is it a technological society, or predominantly humanistic or spiritual?
  • What do they look and speak like?

Novel Setting Definition – Location

novel setting exampleThe first level of any story setting consist of two important coordinates – time and location but there are other aspects to consider if it is to contribute successfully to your novel. Let’s break it down further into its component parts.

First of all, we need to specify a geographical location. This is where the action is happening. Keep in mind their may be two or more locations that are very different from each other. Your story may be told in a basement in its entirety, or spread across alien planets throughout an unknown Galaxy.

If you choose to write a science fiction or fantasy novel then the location and everything else may well be a figment of your own creative imagination. You need to make sure you know it well so you can describe it and make your readers believe in it.

On the other hand, if you book is intended for American readers, and it’s set in a mid-western town, then it isn’t necessary to go overboard with descriptions, as pretty much everyone has some level of experience with that environment.

The Historical Time Of Your Novel Setting

You need to specify just when the story is taking place. This could be right down to the year, month and date, or broader, such as the ‘mid-forties’. If the novel setting is way in the past, then extra care would need to be taken with location descriptions, and also the social morays prevailing in those times.

define story settingIt’s well worth contemplating the extent to which you explain the characteristics of the time chosen, as some will require extensive research into the detail of day to day living. Is your story timeless? Could it be told in any time period?

If you go back far enough, then you tend to bypass the social niceties of everyday living and life becomes less complex. If a story unfolds with a neanderthal setting, the reader is well-able to imagine daily life without too much detailed description – it was brutal, precarious and dangerous!

Prevailing Physical Conditions Of The Environment

This would tend to follow from the geographical location: You wouldn’t need to write about the damn heat if the story is set in the Sahara desert. Suffice to say that weather conditions can have a significant effect on the story, as it affects moods, social relationships and human reactions.

Novel Setting - Location

A person can be almost permanently listless and irritable after six months living in the Punjab, or spend most of his time trying to keep warm in the Arctic. Either way, these extremes will (or can) affect outcomes of the many challenges the protagonist faces as the plot unfolds.

Social Norms

is setting same as theme?This is where you get to tell your audience about everyday life, particularly if it’s away from the norms of modern society, in a foreign country or on another planet! Set the scene in the early part of the story so that readers understand what normal life is like.

During this period a good author will be introducing the main characters, or at least hinting at their existence. This is important because normally the story is so constructed that this status-quo is going to change, the protagonist is thrown out of comfortable life-style and forced to go on a quest!

It’s a great idea to describe unusual modes of dress and ways of behaving. What are the custom here? How does it impact the story? What challenges does it present to the hero as he moves forward to take the challenge? All the factors we associate with a novel’s setting can be wisely used to augment conflict and tension throughout the story.

Moody Or Bright Beginnings?

The reader would appreciate some guidance from you about the mood of the story, which largely emanates from the protagonist (usually). Is the mood dark or bright, in general?

You can imply or show this in many ways, with description, dialogue or the actions of characters. Perhaps the story beings brightly, passes through a dark night of the soul (which isn’t unusual) and ends on an upbeat note. It’s all up to you, but do it! Try not to leave the reader guessing.


Novel Point Of View - Third


4 Replies to “What Is The Setting In A Novel? Definition & Examples”

  1. Pete Kramer says:

    I can completely relate to the importance of a setting when reading sic-fi, which I love. If the alien landscape is so different than ours, it needs some careful and descriptive prose to get the reader into the story. Can you give an example of a novel that hardly needs any explanation – apart from a desert, and the sea, I can’t think of many.

    1. The book ‘Room’ comes to mind by Emma Donoghue. They also made a movie. About 95% of the novel setting is in one room, so not too difficult for the reader to grasp! Staying in the realm of film, Locke with Tom Hardy, took place in his car as the story setting. ‘Buried’ is a story about a man buried in a box in the desert somewhere – we never get to experience anything outside this setting. I think this is the most minimal setting I can come up with. Good question, though!

  2. Poppy Ledbetter says:

    This is a nice site, by the way. I’m quite sure that some book enthusiasts go for the novel setting when choosing a book to read i like sci-fi, a genre which can have a variety of setting – future, fantasy, off-world, etc, but the theme of the story is less important to me. Also depends what mood I’m in – do I want an emotionally entangle yarn with loads of character arc changes, or a rollocking good ride with a plot driven story of nasty green aliens? It’s true that almost any theme can be explored in any setting, but think that some combinations are more difficult than others.

    1. Glad you like it, and thanks for taking the time to comment I’m a sucker for science fiction too. It’s a book setting that speaks to me of endless possibilities, which of course includes human possibilities. You can write incredible character arcs that cover the whole gamut of human development in completely new ways, which is exactly what readers want – the same old stories told in new ways!

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