Setting with a Purpose

Sad but true, setting and locale in novels is mostly ignored. It’s as if writers feel they must sacrifice attention to setting on the altar of getting the story moving, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Setting serves a number of very powerful, key functions in a novel’s scenes, and that’s why it’s an essential pillar of novel construction. Without setting, how can you have a story? Some (many) scenes I’ve edited and critiqued appear to be floating in space or some nebulous location. The writer seems so intent on conveying dialog or explaining about the characters that he forgets (or thinks it is unimportant) to mention where his characters just happen to be.

And then there are other manuscripts in which setting is occasionally mentioned in passing, but almost as an afterthought, as if the writer knows he should say something about where his characters are but feels it is so unimportant, he throws out a few token lines that objectively name the place or sketch a vague description and moves on.

And that’s a shame, because a writer like that is missing out on a great opportunity to bring his novel to life. The more real a place is to readers, the easier they can be transported there to experience the story.

Try to Be Original and Purposeful

Too often setting is relegated to restaurants, with characters sitting around eating, drinking. Some novels I’ve critiqued have more than twenty restaurant scenes. Unless you are doing My Dinner with Andre, stay away from scenes like that unless that is the best place for your character to be for that scene.

Try to be original, imaginative. First consideration is the overall locale of your novel’s setting, which may be one place, like a small town, or have an international hodgepodge of locales, such as in Ludlum’s Bourne series. It may be that your premise requires a very specific location, but if not, take the time to think about your concept and the protagonist’s goal, and think of places to set your character that can provide as much interest, potential for conflict, and utility for your story. And of course each has to be a place that works for your protagonist’s background and personality.

Next consideration is the setting of individual scenes in your book. If you are trying to show a character’s well-rounded life, you will want a number of different locales showcasing his job, his family, his hobbies, where he hangs out with his friends. But the trap for many writers is when they choose random settings for no apparent reason, as a backdrop for the story. And that is missing out on a very useful structural component for a story. Setting is so powerful in our lives, and it can be in the lives of our characters (we’ll be looking at that point in depth next week).

Build Your World

You may feel that if you are not writing a fantasy novel, you don’t have to “build your world.” But you do. You might ask, why would you need to “build” New York City, for example, when most people know a lot about that city from TV, movies, news, and even personal experience?

The answer circles back again to the point that your novel is shown through the eyes of the POV characters. This means that in every scene, someone is experiencing the place they are in as the plot develops. New York, to you, is going to feel different and mean different things than it is to me. New York, to each of your characters situated there, is going to be experienced differently.

The more you can have the setting of each scene affect and impact your characters in some way, the more real and personal your story will feel. If setting isn’t all that important to your concept and plot, spend some time thinking about how to make it so. Consider changing the locale your novel takes place in to one with greater purpose for your story. Why not go through your scenes and list all the places you show your characters? Are they purposeful? Do they set the right mood for the scene? Do they evoke memories or feelings in your POV character?

These are all questions we are going to explore in upcoming posts, but I hope I’ve given you something to think about in the meantime. If you’ve been pushing setting into the background, start putting it center stage. Setting provides the framework for your novel and so is an essential pillar of novel construction.

What novel stands out in your mind for its great settings and/or locale? How important do you feel setting is in the novels you read? Share some thoughts in the comments!

Inspection checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Inspection Checklist 4-theme with a heart

Inspection Checklist 5-Plots and Subplots in a String of Scenes

Inspection Checklist 6-Secondary Characters with Their Own Needs


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  1. Setting is so important to a novel. When the author truly makes the setting come alive it can feel like its own, wonderful character. As I read this post, I thought of the entire Harry Potter series. What mystical, magical places J.K. Rowling created.

  2. Thanks so much, Susanne, for sharing your insight on the elements of novel construction! As a novice writer with a rough draft under my (tool)belt, I have devoured your series.

    I agree that setting/locale is critical. In fact, I “relocated” my story, moving it from an old gold-mining town in the mountains of Idaho to a logging town in the ‘Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania’. It’s a contemporary story, but the heroine escapes to the family cabin to work through some issues.

    However…there is a mafia thread in the story, and although the occasional mobster has settled in Boise, it’s not a city known for organized crime! I considered Portland, Oregon, but found that Philadelphia really met all the requirements for the story.
    But this lead to another issue…Idaho mountain dialect is distinct from that of backwoods Pennsylvania. The name of the mining town had been Rocky ‘Bar’, but that changed to Settlers ‘Run’. And of course the saloon morphed into a tavern! Quite a linguistic challenge.
    I’ve also gained an appreciation for GoogleMaps, as locations and driving distance were factors!
    Again, thank you for this series. I feel like I’m auditing a graduate-level distance education course from a renowned professor…and it came along at the perfect time!
    Kathy Schuknecht

    1. You’re welcome. I’m writing historical fiction now too, so it’s challenging to not only convey the place but the sense of time evident in the setting (and I want to be as accurate as possible). I find it helps to read actual historical accounts from people who lived back then.

      1. Yes, historical accuracy is essential. I just completed an outline for a historical romance that takes place in Rocky Bar, Idaho, during its gold-mining heyday, late 1800’s. It will be based on love letters my daughter (an archaeologist) discovered in the state historical archives. We have a cabin in Featherville, about 7 miles downhill from RB. There are so many real-life characters to draw on…Peg Leg Annie, Dutch Em, China Polly…can’t wait to start! If you have 5 minutes, I think you’d enjoy this YouTube video. It captures the essence of the place:

  3. Thanks for this post, Susanne. Setting is the spice of the writer’s life–I think. I love creating a view, a room, or having my characters doing things in that space. Setting can almost become a character if utilized effectively as the “world” of a hospital, police station, farm, rehab center often introduces the reader to a world they don’t know. I am just finishing SEATING ARRANGEMENTS by M. Shipstead–her world of the nouveau riche in a place like Cape Cod is fascinating and fun.

  4. I write fantasy (at the moment!)I feel setting does play part of world-building in this genre, and as you’ve said, world-building is essential in any novel, and setting can be so much more than simply describing the environment, however well it’s done. I like to try and have the setting work on more than one level – so that where the characters are subtly reflects what they are experiencing internally as well as what happens to be going on in the plot.

    The biggest challenge is not to over-doing it, conveying what I want the reader to see and more importantly feel without boring them.
    Scene-setting as world building tends to get quite a bad rap in fantasy these days, especially in writers’ groups!

    But I do love trying to convey a specific feeling via the setting, so thanks for this excellent post. Your 12-Pillars series has fast become the backbone of my checklist 🙂


  5. Hi Suzanne.

    Your comments about New York and what the location would mean to different characters made me immediately think of the movie, Crocodile Dundee. For Linda Kozlowski’s character, it was just New York, nothing special. For Paul Hogan’s character, Dundee himself, he was awestruck, fascinated and maybe even a little afraid of the size of the place and the amount of people in it. He thought that it must be a good place and the people must all be really friendly to all live together like that.

    So, for me, having never been to New York as I live in Sydney, Australia, New York would be totally different again. So, more food for thought. Thanks again for these posts!

  6. I am so lucky that my novel is intimately connected to its setting in the Himalaya mountains. Most of the love story is based there and as I have been lucky to spend alot of time there, I am loving writing about the setting. I know that I have to move the action on a bit more as I get lost in poetic descriptions of the mountains and the villages and the people!

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