Setting is the time and place where a scene occurs. It can help set the mood, influence the way characters behave, affect the dialog, foreshadow events, invoke an emotional response, reflect the society in which the characters live, and sometimes even plays a part in the story. It can also be a critical element in nonfiction as the setting provides the framework for what is being discussed.
To make the setting come alive, it’s important to include significant details. That doesn’t mean describing everything the characters see, or giving a complete history of where the scene occurs. Giving enough information to help readers visualize the setting is important, but too many minor details will bog down the story rather than move it forward.
There are ways to clarify the setting without using long descriptive passages. For example:
a) The type of vocabulary the characters use can suggest where they live or where the scene occurs. Teens from Chicago will sound different from teenagers in rural Kentucky. Ordering a Caramel Macchiato implies a more sophisticated restaurant than if the character orders an orange soda (although I personally order pink lemonade where ever I go—except in winter, when I want a hot chocolate with whipped cream on top.)
b) The weather can indicate the time of year, or general location of the scene. Mentioning a hurricane, or snow, will give readers clues as to where or when the story takes place. The fragrance of a certain flower wafting on a gentle breeze suggests a different setting than the smell of asphalt permeating the air.
c) Describing a dark, gloomy house or a shadowy forest can suggest something suspenseful may occur, setting the tone as well as giving details about the location. Candles flickering can either hint at romance or suggest a religious scene; adding other details will help clarify their significance.
d) Give the setting a purpose to fulfill. An exotic location can be a backdrop for a steamy romance or a wild adventure. A mountainous terrain can be a source of danger and add suspense. A hospital waiting room can suggest trauma and pain, adding tension to the story.
What part does the setting play in your writing? Do you prefer having most of the details left to your imagination or do you like having the setting clearly defined? What books can you think of that use setting as a major element in the plot? Do you ever choose books to read based on their setting?