Given the amount of time and attention we devote to characters and plot, our story’s setting can feel like an afterthought. However, masterful use of setting can elevate your story from okay to great. It helps create that magical, immersive experience readers love. While setting shouldn’t upstage the action happening on the page, it should feel intentional and necessary. Some of the best stories have settings that almost become a character unto themselves.
If you’re concerned about your setting’s contribution to your story — or lack thereof — here are a few questions to ask yourself before the next round of revisions.
Where is it, exactly?
You can set your novel in a fictional place, but it should have a name. It should feel specific: a place readers could imagine themselves visiting. Most of us have dreamed of going to Hogwarts. The magical world of Harry Potter feels as real as any place we’ve seen. Hawkins, Indiana — the fictional town of Stranger Things fame — could be anywhere in 1980s suburbia, but it comes alive through the eyes of the show’s protagonists.
Early in revisions for my first novel, my critique group complained that I never mentioned a town name. They felt disoriented and wanted to know where they were in the world. Your setting doesn’t need to exist in real life, but it should feel real enough for your readers to imagine themselves going there.
Why does your story need to happen here?
This might sound obvious, but if someone asks how you chose your setting, you should be able to answer. How does this setting contribute to your plot? What makes it essential?
The Martian has to take place on Mars because the author wanted to explore the limits and possibilities of survival there. I wrote a story about a teenager discovering the truth about what happened in the car accident that killed his girlfriend. The entire story takes place in a junkyard because none of the people in his life have told him the truth. He has to, literally, stumble upon it himself. Ideally, your plot and setting should work together in harmony to create your story.
If your setting choice doesn’t feel as high-concept as all that, don’t worry. Maybe you’ve chosen your setting because you’re particularly fond of the place, or because you happen to know it well enough to write about it confidently. These are valid reasons, too.
Do you know it well enough?
If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you’re the master of your story world. Since everything is imaginary, you only need to worry about creating sufficient detail — and keeping it all straight in your head.
For those of us writing real places, whether they’re real towns like Anchorage or London or fictional towns in real states or countries, we need to know our subject. Don’t rely on conjecture or generalization. While that may convince a reader who’s never been to the place you’re describing, anyone who knows your setting will cry foul. If you decide to write about a place where you’ve never spent significant time, you have a lot of research to do.
Do you love it?
If you don’t find your setting interesting or evocative, neither will your readers. A writer friend of mine sets many of her stories in Arizona. She grew up there and misses it now that she’s moved away. Desert life comes alive in her stories in a unique and delightful way. I’m currently drafting a novel set in one of my favorite writing spots: the Jersey Shore. It’s a place I’ve felt passionate about since I could feel passionate about anything, and I want that to come through in my narrator’s voice.
While you don’t need to love your setting, you should feel something for it. This is how you pull out the details that make your story pop. If you’re one of the people who couldn’t stop listening to the Serial spin-off podcast S-Town, you’ve met a protagonist who hates the place where the story happens. It’s not always easy to pull off, but it can be very powerful.
Choose setting, and choose it wisely.
Your story’s setting is more than a generic backdrop. Pause your favorite television show sometime during a scene in a main character’s home. It’s probably full of small details that may never be part of the scene’s main action. These details add up to make us feel like part of that character’s life.
Wherever your story happens, it should feel specific and unique. It should be a place readers can name and imagine themselves traveling to. And it should weave its way into your prose tightly enough that it feels indispensable to the story.