Setting as Place and TimeJul 24, 2021
Post written by Andrew and Katie Wall.
There's a common misconception that setting is just the place in which your story is set. However, in this blog post we want to explore how this just isn't the whole truth. While yes, setting is place, setting is also the time in which your story is set. In this post we’ll explore both of these aspects of setting as well as why communicating your setting well in your writing is so crucial.
Setting as Place
Most writers are familiar with the concept of setting as the place where your story is unfolding. Yet a good understanding of your story’s setting as a place requires acknowledging a few nuances of that concept: 1) setting as the place of action, 2) setting as a place on a map, and 3) setting as a place in a world.
The Place of Action
First and foremost, the setting of your story is the place where the action happens! Conversations and conflicts, revenge served cold and a meal served hot, anything that the characters of your story actively do is considered the “action” of your story. As a result, each scene of your story has a setting in which it unfolds. The setting of your entire book encompasses all of the specific scene settings.
A Place On a Map
While we could look at each individual scene’s setting (where the action takes place) in isolation, that does your story a disservice. Just as “real world” places are influenced by other places—to varying degrees depending on accessibility through trade, tourism, technology, etc.—the places where your story’s action takes place are influenced by the story’s world as a whole.
Even if you decide not to make an actual map of your story’s world, you need to consider how the larger location of your individual settings influence those settings. Any particular scene setting should exist with logical physical connections to the preceding and proceeding scene settings and the resulting chain is the setting of your whole book.
A Place In a World
Because setting is where the action happens, there are a lot of places that exist around the action that aren't directly explored over the course of your story. That being said, the action that happens in your setting is affected and shaped by the surrounding world and has consequences for it as well. In this sense, the concept of setting includes the various evidences of a larger world, even if the setting does not include the larger world itself. It is these evidences that make settings believable and feel like real places and not just a stage set with cardboard props.
This is why solid world-building is so important. If you don’t have a comprehensive understanding of your world as a whole, you can’t write a realistic setting.
Setting as Time
As we mentioned in the introduction, setting is much more than simply a place. When we talk about setting, we are also talking about the time of the story. As with place, there are a few pieces of this concept of setting as time: 1) setting as the time of action and 2) setting as a particular time in a timeline.
The Time of Action
Just as the action of your story occurs within a particular place, it also happens at a particular time. The day and time during which an event happens in your story should have logical consequences—for example, a ritual that occurs after sunset will have a very different feel than one that occurs at noon. A couple getting into an argument at the start of a day will have different implications than an argument that takes place right before they go to sleep or one of them leaves for an extended trip. And a mountainous journey that begins in fall will look very different than one that begins in spring.
A Particular Time In a Timeline
Just as your setting as place is connected and influenced by other places, your setting as time is affected by what has come before in your world’s timeline, since time is linear (or at least that’s how we perceive it and write it—at least the majority of the time). This means that you need to be aware of and intentional about how the timing of events in your story and the larger world will influence each other.
This is why we recommend coming up with a chronology for your world as part of the world-building process, since you’ll need to know how previous events have set the stage for the current happenings. (Pantsers, you need to do world-building too!)
A Particular Time In a Particular Place
Even though we’ve been discussing setting as place and setting as time separately, space and time are not concepts to be separated. To say that a scene happens in a particular place is all fine and good, but many things happen in that place. When we add the specific “when” to the “where” of our story, we have the complete coordinates to the action of the story. That it happens here and now and not there and then makes up the very essence of what setting is.
The Change of Place and Flow of Time in Writing
Because both time and place are integral to the setting of a story, it is crucial to communicate both of these elements to your reader for every scene. As you write and revise, make sure that you are painting a picture that uses every sense—including the sense of time!
It’s amazing how often writers think they’ve clearly communicated where characters are in the setting (e.g., sitting at the bar in a tavern, riding a horse though the woods, piloting a space ship). They might have done so at the beginning of the scene, but as the scene progresses they forget to show their readers how the character's position in the setting changes.
To go with our “sitting at the bar in a tavern” example, if a writer forgets to tell us that their character turned, got off the stool, and crossed to the door—and instead suddenly the character is standing in the doorway looking out at the slivered moon—the spell the writer is trying to weave will be broken, since the reader will feel confused and have to consciously reorient themselves in the setting.
The same is true for the flow of time. If, at the start of a chapter, you write that it’s dawn, but then two pages later it’s afternoon, that can jolt the reader out of the story if you haven’t given us the guideposts along the way to mark the passage of time.
Whenever you leave out this information (or don’t convey it clearly enough) you’re creating a potential stumbling block for the reader to stay in the flow of the story. And anytime a reader has to pause and think is a pause where they might close your book and move on to the next book in their TBR pile. This is why we recommend that writers who are drafting put in more details than they think is necessary. It’s easy to take out extra detail during revisions, but you can’t work with what isn’t on the page.
Chances are, you know in your mind where in time and place your characters are, so make sure you’re giving your reader the best chance to see your vision and be swept up in your story!
Understanding that setting is made up of both place and time is crucial for writing settings that feel real and alive. Plus, being aware that your reader can’t read your mind and that you must clearly communicate these two aspects of setting is a writing craft skill that will pay dividends in keeping readers engaged with your story.
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