Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Novelist: The Importance of Setting in Fiction Writing

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore--Dorothy in Wizard of Oz

In my online writing classes and workshops I cover several common pitfalls of beginning writers. One common pitfall is to forget the importance of setting in story. Think of Frodo in Lord of the Rings without his beloved Shire. And what about wayward Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz without her dear home in Kansas and the contrasting Land of Oz…

Setting includes time, place and circumstance of the story. Without a place there is, in fact, no story. In the examples I gave you, place plays a major role in defining major and minor characters. Like the force in Star Wars, setting provides a landscape that binds everything into context and meaning. For author Richard Russo, it goes beyond place; he suggests that “If you’re not writing stories that occur in a specific place (my emphasis), you’re missing an opportunity to add depth and character to your writing.” He describes some of his students’ responses to his challenge, “where does the story take place?”: “it doesn’t really matter; it’s really more about the people.” The irony is that we do want to know and, oddly enough, the more specific you get, the more universal your truth becomes.

I’ll go even further: settings can not only have character; they can be a character in their own right. A novelist, when portraying several characters, may often find herself painting a portrait of “place”. This is setting being “character”. Setting functions as a catalyst, and molds the more traditional characters that animate a story. The central character is often really the place, which is often linked to the main protagonist (e.g., Scarlet O’Hara and Georgia in the 1860s in Gone With the Wind; Eustacia Vye and Egdon Heath of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native; Paul Atriades and the planet Arakis in Dune). Setting, then, comes to mean so much more. Setting ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story.

In fact, D.H. Lawrence, in commenting on Hardy’s book Return of the Native, suggested that Egdon Heath was the most important character of the story:

How you portray setting and place, then, becomes an integral part of the story itself. You can significantly increase metaphoric meaning in your story with a richly textured setting. You can use setting to amplify a character’s emotions or contradict them, depending on the circumstance of the character, her mood, disposition, tendencies, and observational skills. Either way, setting provides an “emotional landscape” upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony.
Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.
Here are some suggestions that can help every fiction writer create vivid, memorable and meaningful settings:

• Choose your setting purposefully; make it an integral part of the story with meaning
• Describe setting selectively, through integration in “scene” rather than exposition.
• Be specific (e.g., beat up Chevy, not car; old clapboard cottage, not house.
• Use similes, metaphors, and personification to breathe life into setting.
• Use the senses like sight, sound, smell, taste, feel.
• Show, don’t tell (e.g., instead of saying the time is the 1920s; show the cars and dresses. Instead of telling the reader it’s raining; show them by describing the dripping trees, etc.)
• Don’t describe setting all at once in the beginning; work it in slowly throughout the story; let it unfold as the story does.

You can find more about “Setting” in Chapter H in my writing guidebook, The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Starfire World Syndicate (available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other bookstores).

I discuss “setting” in "The Writer's Toolkit" a workshop that I give throughout North America. For those of you interested, this comprehensive writer’s workshop is going to be launched on DVD soon and will be available at Amazon as well as online.

You can go to my website, Nina Munteanu for details and to get your copy.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Dalifan said...

Awesome post Nina! As an avid reader, I can tell you that you are right on the money about the setting being a character in it's own right...

I've noticed that I can only acheive that ultimate reading experience, where I actually almost 'feel' like I'm immersed in the story and there, when the setting is a dynamic part of the story!


SF Girl said...

Thanks for your comment, Teresa!

I am the same when I read. When a story isn't grounded in "place", it lacks the reality that we crave, that feeling of really being there, which makes a story come alive for us.

If a writer treats setting as character, she is more liable to breathe life into it with rich and sensual metaphor and imagery.

Novice writers tend to do several things: one is they forget to let the reader know where their characters are--especially when they are doing dialogue (it's called "talking heads" LOL!) the other is the opposite, where they'll do the "info dump" thing and give you tons of "setting" in the beginning without context. It's a delicate balancing act that writers need to learn.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

The Shire, Rivendel and Lothlorien were beatifully described in the LOTR, and transformed perfectly on to the screen.

SF Girl said...

Yes, Jean-Luc! They did come to life!

Dar said...

Great post Nina! You are so right. When I read a book, It better capture me in the first chapter.

SF Girl said...

Thanks, Dar!

You got that right, Babio! As Dorothy said herself, "Well, Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore..." :)

Karen said...

Your settings just spring to life :)

SF Girl said...

Thank you, Karen! :)

Toulouse LeTrek said...

Nina, when are your writing workshop DVDs coming out? You have a great section there on settings based on Chapter H of your guidebook...
Ton ami,
Toulouse LeTrek :-3

SF Girl said...

Soon, Toulouse... soon... I'll let everyone know when it's close... well, it's sort of close now... :)

We are still in edit mode and then there is all the discussion about packaging...

SF Girl said...

Meantime, you can buy the book "The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!" at amazon here: