The Importance of Setting

Hi, SEers! Mae here with a post about setting. Often when we start planning a novel, we’re focused on developing characters and plot. We know where our novel is set, but how much time do we spend fleshing out details? Do we give it the same amount of attention as we give the background and quirks of our characters? The ebb and flow of our plot?

Think back to some of your favorite books. Despite how much we love a story, often times our memory of it fades with the passing of years. The protagonist probably stands out in your mind, along with a few disjointed memories of plot. But what about the setting? Surprisingly, setting is often what readers remember most, especially when it’s played for mood.

Twister tearing across an open field to a dirt lane, dark, moody sky

I’m going to give you a few examples. One of my favorite books (which I’ve read two, perhaps three times) is The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett. Book Five of the Lymond Chronicles, my paperback copy comes in at 640 pages. That’s a lot of pages, which means there’s a lot taking place. It’s probably been ten years since I last read the book, but to this day when I think of it, I remember the setting­­—tsarist Russia. I remember the bitter cold, the winter landscapes, the pomp and gilded excess of Ivan the Terrible’s court. Dunnett brought that setting so vividly to life, I absolutely can NOT think of The Ringed Castle, without immediately focusing on the setting.

The Terror by Dan Simmons is another book that positively oozes setting. At 955 pages in paperback, this fictional account of the search for the Northwest Passage, and tragic loss of the ships Erebus and Terror has a lot of plot to cover. Once again, what I remember most is the glacial arctic setting of ice and snow, long days of darkness, crystalline stars, and the crack and thunder of the Northern Lights. I read this book poolside during the sweltering heat of a long-ago July, but Simmons made me feel the excruciating cold and the wonder of his winter setting.

Amazonia by James Rollins took me to the gummy heat of the jungle and the lush surroundings of the Amazon rainforest. Rollins gave me 510 pages of a fascinating and exhilarating plot, but he also delivered a setting that got under my skin and is easily resurrected when I think of this book.

three paperbacks and a hard cover arranged on desk

Even if you write fantasy or sci-fi, you can still weave a setting that will leave your readers spellbound. To this day, I remember the shadowed and sinister Forest of Black Sun Rising, the cold marble beauty of Gerald Tarrant’s castle and the dazzling current of the “fae” as it flowed across a land rich in contrasts. C. S. Friedman held me mesmerized for 595 pages.

These are just a few examples that stand out in my memory, but there are many more. The very first book that enchanted me as a child­—The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden­—did so by utilizing setting. I don’t remember much about the main character, a spoiled, bratty girl, but I can recall being enthralled with the spooky old house, and its portraits of ladies in long flowing gowns.

Setting speaks to readers every bit as much as our characters do. Take the time to wrap your readers in the full scope of your chosen setting­—evoke mood along with the details—and they’ll hold those memories for years and decades to come.

When you think back over cherished books, do you recall the settings with fondness? Do you remember them vividly? What are some of your favorite books where setting stood out as much as the characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Ready, set, go!

Bio box for author, Mae Clair

47 thoughts on “The Importance of Setting

  1. I think setting is very important in a novel, Mae. The setting often does stay with you for a long time afterwards. My examples would be the dry Australian countryside in The Thorn Birds, the war setting in the trenches in All Quite on the Western Front and The Red Badge of Courage, Dracula’s castle in Bram Stokers Dracula and the garden in The Secret Garden. I could go on but those are top settings for me. Oh and the hotel setting in A Gentleman in Moscow is also quite extraordinary. I suppose I could also add the hotel from The Shining. So many great books, so little time to read them all.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Those are all wonderful examples, Robbie. I’ve read some of those but not all of them. Setting definitely lingers after we finish reading a novel. I agree with you—there are so many great books and so little time to read them!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. We miss an opportunity, I think, if we don’t capture the setting and weave it into the play and plot of the story. Your description of The Terror is a perfect example of how the setting is almost a character, a beautiful and deadly antagonist. I like settings that reveal character or culture… like in The Ringed Castle. I think, Mae, that perhaps what makes these settings so memorable is that they were intrinsic to the story rather than just a backdrop for the action. Wonderful post…. and you’ve added to my TBR list!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. What a wonderful post, Mae. I agree that the setting of any book is equally as important as the characters and plot. I often think maybe I don’t give it enough attention, but your post inspires me to concentrate on it more. The Great Gatsby has already been mentioned, but I do not think of it without remembering the opulent settings of the very wealthy. Another book that left me with a stunning memory of the setting was in the children’s Magic Tree House book series. Thank you for sharing this elemental part of any story!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ve heard of the children’s Magic Tree House book series, though I never read it. I love that it left such a strong impression on you. The same with The Great Gatsby. That one was soaked in atmosphere and setting. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Jan. Setting is something I love losing myself in, both as a reader and a writer.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. In middle school, I fell in love with James Fenimore Cooper. He could take three pages to describe a forest that Natty Bumppo was walking through. I fell in love with his descriptions and settings. Later, I found Gothic novels with old, moldering castles and moors. The settings permeate the mood and tone of the books. I love settings, but I’m awfully haphazard about writing them. Description isn’t my strong suit unless I concentrate on it, and somewhere along the tapping of keys, characters and plot take over for me. But you’re right. I’ll never forget James Hilton’s Lost Horizons or the heat and humidity in FEVER SEASON.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I haven’t read all the books you’ve mentioned, Judi, but I can thoroughly related to Gothic novels with the moldering castles and misty moors. I read many of them in my day and they’re still a favorite escape for me. Isn’t wonderful how setting permeates a novel so strongly?
      I often have to go back over my own scene setting, fiddling and tweaking to make it resonate the way I want it to. I agree that working with setting definitely takes time. Probably why I am such a slow writer, LOL!

      Liked by 3 people

  5. What a great post and subject, Mae! You are so right there are many books I remember the setting over the story. India and England was a favorite of mine when I was younger. I can still feel the oppressive heat while wearing a heavy dress or the chilling cold. Alaska always draws me in with the endless forest and wildness. Even in fantasy, like The Hobbit, the details in the setting made it all the more real for me.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Isn’t it amazing how setting comes back so strongly when we think of the books we loved. I’ve read a few books set in Alaska, as well, and remember them fondly for that cold winter setting. As much as I dislike cold, I do love reading books with a winter setting!
      Glad you enjoyed the post, Denise!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. You make an excellent point about the setting, Mae. I know many times I have the setting in my head when writing but am I sure I give enough information to the reader about it? Most of my stuff is character-focused, so it is good to pause and consider the setting. Since I’m working on the next book, this post comes in at a great time. Thanks, Mae.

    Liked by 5 people

    • We think alike, Judith. I feel the same about setting being a character. Of those books that made such a strong impression upon me, it’s always setting that I recall the most. If you read The Terror I’ll be interested to see what you think. It’s a odd book. Rich with history, lyrical, haunting, yet brutal, strange and raw. I still count it as one of my all time favorite reads.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. I saw Harry Potter mentioned, which is my go-to modern reference. In classic literature, I would name Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Great Gatsby as three books I remember setting vivid scenes. In my writing, I have occasional passages where I remember to do it and put in the effort, but I know I also forget sometimes. I’d like to do better in the future.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Harry Potter is an excellent example of setting that resonates from the pages and paints vivid imagery that lingers. I’ve never read Gone with the Wind or the Grapes of Wrath, but strangle, Grapes has been on my very recent reading radar. Given what you said about setting now makes me want to read it even more.
      I did love The Great Gatsby. I think the first time I read it I was too young to really appreciate it, but I read again just a few years ago and came away with an entirely different perspective.

      And, BTW, I think you do a fantastic job of crafting setting.

      Liked by 4 people

  8. I’m going back a long way to a favorite childhood book, The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. The setting was in the province of Ontario, Canada. The author’s vivid descriptions of the forests, lakes, streams, and rural communities were so vivid that I felt as if I was on the journey with the animals. It was one book that helped me decide I wanted to be an author and take readers on their own journey.

    Great post, Mae!

    Liked by 5 people

  9. I admit this is a work in progress for me. Your point about it being what people remember is well taken. I still have the visuals from old stories that I don’t remember the plot of. This is a good reminder to take another look at my setting.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Setting grounds a reader more strongly than any other element of a book. It does take some effort, but I believe the more we employ it as writers, the easier it becomes. I always think of setting when I recall the books I loved the best.

      A recent release I just remembered is Where the Crawdads Sing. The swamp was a character in itself. Loved it!

      Liked by 4 people

  10. I, too, remember settings from stories. Flowers in the Attic and My Sweet Audrina by VC Andrews were all about the setting. LOTR, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, The DaVinci Code series… I remember the settings of them all. The more I can visualize where I (um…the characters) am in the fictional world, the easier it is for me to lose myself in the story. In my own books, I spend time setting the scene because I know how much I enjoy feeling as if I can see myself there. Great post, Mae. 🙂

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    • Great examples, Yvette. I haven’t read all of these but I do remember Flowers in the Attic, and of course LOTR, and Harry Potter.
      I’m just like you when it comes to reading (and writing books). I love to lose myself in the story and setting is a massive part of that. I also take extra time in setting scenes when I’m writing because I know how much I enjoy that when I read. I love when authors “paint a picture with words.”
      So glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 4 people

  11. When I first started to study the craft of fiction writing, I learned to treat my setting as its own character. The books that have stayed with me for forty plus years because of their setting are Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird. Great post, Mae!

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  12. What a great post, Mae! Though I’ve not read the books you’ve mentioned, others come to mind that validate your insight. Returning to my high school years, Wuthering Heights remains haunting in large part because of the setting. Thank you for pointing this out, as I’ve learned so much. 😊

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  13. Thanks a lot for introducing me to another world. I am an author as well who has written books and scripts for films and TV. I never read fantasy. except the classics like “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter”. I found fantasy it quite boring. The problem is that’s always the same archetypal story told with black and white characters. I suppose when writing the style is much more important than the story. It’s the rythm of the language, how you build the ups and downs of tension and that you avoid phrases and ideas everybody uses. I just read by John Banville “Snow”. F.e. he writes for me an elegant style. And I suppose a modern novel has to reflect it’s medium, like in every craft one should use the most advanced techniques. After Proust and Joyce we can’t write like in the 19th c.
    Thanks for sharing.
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hello, and thanks for dropping by to share your thoughts! I used to read a ton of fantasy back in my younger days. Now it’s mostly mystery, suspense and thrillers which are excellent for crafting setting, especially the first two.
      You mentioned the rhythm of the language, and that’s an element I plan to address in a future post. It’s one that resonates strongly with me. I call it the music of the words, the ebb and flow.
      Writing has definitely changed over the decades and centuries. And, of course, genre also plays a key element into how much time (and which scenes) a writer spends on setting. I do miss the elegant language and dense prose of older books, but there are also times I want an easy, quick read. As much as I might enjoy the latter, it’s the former that will stay with me decades and years later. That’s usually because of setting—although a modern example would be Where the Crawdads Sing.

      I’ve never done script writing before. I imagine that must be an entirely different animal. It’s great you’ve done both (books and scripts). Thanks so much for dropping by to share your thoughts today!

      Liked by 4 people

      • You are very welcome.
        Script writing is faster and easier than writing a novel or a non-fiction book. You just sketch your idea and do some dialogues. The problem is that you are dependant more on the kiss of the muse for funny or special ideas.
        I read a lot of Scandinavian literature because I was brought up there and studied it and later taught old Nordic and modern Scandinavian literature. Of course since Sjöwall/Wahlöö they are famous for their crime novels but, of course, they write other literature in the north as well. I really like Herrbjørg Wassmo, especially the book Dina (which is very well filmed).
        All the best
        Klausbernd 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

      • I’ve been meaning to check out some of the Scandinavian crime novels. The setting intrigues me 🙂

        Thanks for the briefing on script writing. I think it’s something you probably have to develop a knack for. I remember experimenting with it in my teens of all things–just for my own amusement. Then friends and I would act out the various scenes. Entirely different than writing for film or TV, LOL!

        Liked by 2 people

  14. Pingback: The Importance of Setting | Story Empire | Welcome to Harmony Kent Online

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