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What is Setting in Literature?

    what is setting in literature

    Setting is an important backdrop to any narrative, literally! While the concept of this plot element may seem simple, there’s more to setting than meets the eye. This guide dives into all the things, including unpacking how setting impacts a narrative and exploring classic examples from literature—and everything in between. 

    Setting Definition

    At its core, setting is when and where a story takes place, referring to the time(s), place(s), and environment(s) where the plot unfolds. It can include physical locations, historical periods, social or cultural contexts, weather conditions, and even the atmosphere or mood of the surroundings. Some stories take place entirely in one setting while others move fluidly between multiple places. In some cases, a story may even hop back and forth in time, using flashbacks or multiple perspectives.

    In some cases, a story’s setting is rooted in a real place or time period. Alternatively, a story can take place during a time or in a location that is completely fictional. In either case, the setting provides the backdrop against which the characters interact and the events unfold, contributing to the overall engagement and impact of the narrative.

    Setting Pronunciation

    Setting is a two-syllable word and is pronounced just as it looks: SET-ing

    What Are the Key Elements of a Story’s Setting?

    When you start to break it down, there’s a lot more that goes into setting than a simple time and place. It’s the little details that help the story come alive, making it feel more real—even if the setting is completely fictional.

    Here are four key elements that help bring a story’s setting to life.

    1. Physical Setting

    This is the basic element people think of when they think of setting. It includes the specific geographical location of where the story takes place, including landscapes, buildings, and natural features.

    Example: The physical setting of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt” is the Happy Life home, a futuristic, technologically advanced home in an unspecified location. More specifically, the house’s nursery becomes an imperative physical setting for the story.

    2. Temporal Setting

    This aspect of setting is more about when the story takes place, as in the specific time period in which the story occurs. Temporal settings can be the past, present, or future, and can include specific dates or historical eras.

    Example: The temporal setting of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is primarily during the Great Depression, specifically in the mid-1930s.

    3. Social Setting

    Going beyond the basics of where and when, the social setting includes details like the cultural, political, and societal context in which the story unfolds. Think social norms and class structures. Is there political strife? Is there diversity? Is the story impacted by economic hardship or extreme wealth? Social tension?

    Example: As an allegory for the Russian Revolution, George Orwell’s Animal Farm goes far beyond the physical setting of the Manor Farm. It also includes all the elements of power struggle and social dynamics on the farm, including exploitation, inequality, and oppression. As the story progresses, the social setting reflects the dynamics of power, authority, and class struggle.

    4. Emotional Setting

    Wait–settings have emotions? You bet they do. In fact, the emotional setting is really important for setting the tone and mood of a story. Think of this as the overall emotional atmosphere of the story, which can be influenced by elements such as weather, lighting, and the characters’ emotional states.

    Example: In The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, the physical setting of Pencey Preparatory Academy and New York City, the emotional setting is heavily influenced by Holden’s internal turmoil and his cynical perspective. Holden’s perspectives and emotions of the world around him deeply define the emotional atmosphere of the story.

    Setting and Plot

    While several elements of plot, such as rising action, climax, and falling action, have more “specific” places in a story’s structure, setting is an element that tends to break that norm. Yes, a story’s setting and exposition often go hand and hand (more on that in the next section). However, authors typically continue to establish and develop the setting throughout the story.

    As the plot thickens, the author may reveal or incorporate additional details about the setting, introduce new locations, or provide further insights into the environment, culture, or historical context of the story. As a result, the reader will develop a deeper understanding of the setting, enriching their understanding of the story’s theme, characters, and other plot elements.

    Additionally, authors may introduce new physical or emotional settings to help drive the plot (and conflict) forward and toward a resolution. They may reveal new aspects of the setting through characters’ observations, experiences, and interactions with their surroundings. They can also show how the setting evolves or changes throughout the story, reflecting the progression of events or character development.

    In any case, an author often continues to establish and develop a story’s setting throughout the narrative to create a more immersive and dynamic narrative. As a result, readers can fully engage with the story’s world as it unfolds.

    Tied Together: Setting and Exposition

    Traditionally speaking, exposition is the first stage of any classic plot where essential background information about the characters, setting, and initial conflict is introduced. It sets the stage for the narrative by providing context that helps readers understand the who, what, when, where, and why of the story.

    Therefore, it’s no surprise that the setting and exposition of a story are intricately connected.  After all, the setting provides the backdrop against which the exposition unfolds (as with the rest of the story). In most cases, the setting is one of the first elements introduced to the reader. The descriptions of the physical environment, time period, social context, and emotional “vibes” help establish the world of the story. From there, authors can continue to introduce and develop key characters, conflicts, and themes within the established setting(s).

    What is the Purpose of Setting in a Story?

    The setting isn’t just something to be set and forgotten, left to fade into the background. A story’s setting gives important context to the narrative, helping develop it from basic and blah to lively and engaging.

    How, exactly? Here are some key functions of a story’s setting:

    • Establishing Atmosphere: The setting helps to create the mood and atmosphere of the story, setting the tone for the narrative and contributing to how readers perceive the events and characters.
    • Shaping Characters: The setting can influence characters’ personalities, behaviors, and motivations, shaping their thoughts, actions, and interactions throughout the story. 
    • Driving Plot: The setting can serve as a catalyst for conflict and narrative development, driving the plot forward and shaping the direction of the story.
    • Reinforcing Theme: The setting can also reflect and reinforce the central themes or messages of the story, adding layers of meaning for readers to interpret and analyze.
    • Bringing the Story to Life: A well-developed setting adds authenticity and depth to the story, making it more believable for readers through vivid descriptions and details.

    Tips for Teaching Setting

    • Create Visuals: Encourage students to visualize the setting based on the author’s descriptions. This can make the setting more tangible and engaging for students, allowing them to better connect with the story.
    • Use explicit instruction: Since the setting is an often overlooked element of a plot, it might be worth teaching it with a focused mini-lesson. Dive into the definition, unpack its elements, discuss its impact on a narrative, and take a close look at strong examples. 
    • Prompt Critical Thinking: If your students are struggling to see beyond the basics of setting, prompt their critical analysis with questions. Encourage students to think about the broader implications of the setting by asking questions like, “How does the weather impact the overall mood and the characters?” or “How would the story change if the setting was different?”
    • Compare and Contrast: Compare and contrast the settings of different stories to highlight how setting impacts the narrative. Discuss how the setting influences the characters, plot, and themes of each story, and how they differ based on factors such as time period and geographical location.
    • Practice Writing Setting: Have students write descriptive passages that focus on setting. Encourage them to use vivid language and sensory details to bring the setting to life as they consider how the setting influences the mood and tone of their writing.
    • Explore the Setting: Use multimedia resources such as maps, images, and videos to help students understand and connect with a story’s setting, especially when rooted in real times and places. Take them on a virtual tour, so to speak, giving them additional context and background information for the setting.
    • Draw Connections: Engage students in discussions about how the setting influences other elements of a story, such as characters, conflicts, and themes. This will help students think deeper about their literary analysis, including how the setting impacts character development and plot progression.
    • Use Mentor Texts with Strong Settings: The best way to teach setting is to show setting. Provide students with plenty of examples of setting from classic literature, modern texts, and popular TV or movies. Utilizing short stories with vivid and immersive settings are extremely accessible, allowing students to grasp how setting impacts an entire narrative.

    Examples of Setting in Literature

    1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

    The novel is primarily set in the fictional towns of West Egg and East Egg on Long Island, New York, during the summer of 1922. Readers are quick to note the social setting that divides the “old money” of East Egg and the “new money” of West Egg, establishing tension between some of the novel’s main characters. By setting the story during the Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald crafts a lively and telling tale surrounding a society obsessed with wealth, status, and the pursuit of the (unachievable?) American Dream.

    Perhaps the most powerful of all Fitzgerlad’s elements of setting is the emotion. The emotional setting, filled with disillusionment, longing, and unfulfilled dreams, provides a stark contrast to the glitz, glam, and excess of the Roaring Twenties. Fitzgerald uses this contrast to underscore his deeper message about the hollowness and unattainability of the wealth-driven American Dream.

    Save time with my done-for-you unit plan for The Great Gatsby.

    2. The Crucible by Arthur Miller

    The play is set in 1692 in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. During this time, the Puritan religion is the foundation of Salem’s society, paving the way for the play’s outbreak of social hysteria during the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Thanks to the strict and religious Puritan way of life, the town quickly becomes a breeding ground for fear, paranoia, and betrayal as the community worries about the presence of witchcraft and the Devil in the town. 

    From a social and cultural standpoint, the setting is characterized by strict religious beliefs and a rigid social hierarchy. The Puritan community is governed by a strict moral code with harsh consequences for those who break it (aka death). As a result, the first (supposed) instance of witchcraft quickly leads to an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and hysteria. This emotional setting underscores the play’s themes of (and Miller’s commentary on) the significance of reputation, the abuse of power, and the consequences of intolerance.

    3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

    Alexie’s novel follows Junior during his Freshman year as he is determined to break free from the cycle of poverty and hopelessness that surrounds him on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The story bounces back and forth between two locations in Washington state, the Spokane Indian Reservation, and the town of Reardan, where Junior attends an all-white high school. Set in modern times, Junior’s journey reflects contemporary issues faced by Native American communities in the US. More specifically, the narrative’s social setting reflects the challenges Junior faces growing up on the Rez and grappling with poverty, racism, and cultural identity as he strives to find his place at school (and in the world).

    As Junior navigates the complexities of adolescence and finds (and embraces) his identity, readers are quick to pick up on the emotional undertones of hope, humor, and resilience. That said, there are also moments filled with harsh truths, somber realizations, and embarrassing encounters. In those scenes, the reader notices a shift in the story’s mood to being more gloomy, resentful, and hopeless. However, the tale always finds its way back to a more optimistic mood filled with hope and perseverance, highlighting Junior’s personal growth throughout the story.

    Additional Resources for Teaching Setting

    Looking for mentor texts? Here are the best short stories to teach setting.

    Teaching setting as part of plot? Here are some tried and true tips for teaching plot.

    Engage your students in an exploration of setting with the following videos:

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