Creative Writing: Four Key Elements of Setting in Fiction

In creative writing, setting is the backdrop in which the story takes place.

Creative writing, whether a novel or short story, relies on setting. Knowing where a story is taking place helps the reader to establish where the scene they’re experiencing is taking place. Setting is the backdrop in which the drama is played out. There are several aspects of setting in creative writing. Each plays an important part in bringing the story to life in the reader’s imagination. Four essential key elements are geographical location, cultural environment, historical period, and specific time.

  • Location gives the reader a place to anchor his imagination. An historical fiction story that takes place on a Caribbean island, like Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, is likely to have a whole different feel from a story taking place in London’s East End, like George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Location gives a visual backdrop to the story with clues to the mood and culture.
  • If location helps the reader come alongside the main character, the cultural environment helps the reader to experience what the main character is experiencing. The culture in which a story takes place can affect decisions and actions of the characters. Often, story conflict is a result of two cultures clashing, as in Pygmalion, or Ben Hur.

  • The historical period of a work of creative writing gives a general time in which to anchor the reader. Most fantasy novels have a medieval aspect. Westerns generally take place between the Civil War and early twentieth century. The historical period gives clues to the types of society and environment of the story. Authors should be very careful to have the facts of the historical period accurate to give the work of fiction authenticity. The fact that the novel Daughter of the Cimarron begins at the onset of the Great Depression, suggests to the reader the main character, Claire, is about to face great hardships, even to the point of mere survival.

  • The specific time in which a story takes place can be the year, time of year, or even time of day. Some stories, like James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Wolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway take place in one specific day. Epic novels, such as Edna Ferber’s Cimarron, cover several years’ time, almost over the life span of the point of view character. With the historical period of a novel established, the specific time helps the reader make a clear association to the events. James Jones’ novel, From Here To Eternity, even uses specific time to build suspense with the reader knowing that on December 7, 1941, the lives of all the characters in the story will become suddenly and irreversibly chaotic.

Location, cultural environment, historical period and specific time create the imaginary world that enhances the reader’s experience. While there are several other elements of setting in creative writing, these four key elements give a story its backdrop, environment, authenticity, and help bring the reader alongside the main character.


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