Setting: Study it Like a Writer So You Can Read for Meaning

Do you want to know my reading shortcut? I skim setting. Do you know the problem with shortcuts? They get you lost. But sometimes the description carries on and I just want to know what the character is going to do next. The reality is, though, knowing what a character’s going to do without knowing where he’s doing it is a waste of good reading time. Skimming setting is a bad habit to get into for a couple of reasons:

Setting = Character = Plot or at the very least Setting + Character = Plot (Formula taken from Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich)

I didn’t give setting enough credit until I thought about that formula. Everything that a character is and can be comes from setting. Where they were raised, how they interact with the world, what choices they make are all influenced by setting. Let’s look at one extreme example to make the point. In “To Build a Fire” by Jack London we hear the story of one man’s struggle with nature. Take away the setting, the frozen Yukon, and the story doesn’t exist. Granted, not all examples of a setting’s impact will be as extreme as London’s tale, but you’ll get more out of your reading if you take your time and read setting as slowly and carefully as you read anything else.

In novels, we often see how the character was born of a particular setting and how it influenced the individual. If we’re lucky enough to follow them from childhood to adulthood we may see subtle ways the places they grew up made the characters into real people. In short stories, we sometimes don’t have the luxury of an in depth backdrop, but we should at least see instances where the character interacts with the present setting and hints about what made the character the way he/she is.

So, what’s the difference between the two formulas? Part of a character may be individual genetic makeup. This is the old nature v. nurture debate. Characters may have something that makes them who they are that exists irregardless of setting, but even that is going to interact with setting to make a story. The second formula accounts for that. I think either formula is a good way to think about setting.

Setting is a Story Enhancer

In addition to providing a back drop for character development, setting makes the events more dramatic, more intense, and packs them with more emotional punch. If the Great Depression wasn’t the back drop of The Grapes of Wrath we’d wonder why the Joads were living the way they did. We’re immediately more sympathetic to them once we know their going through one of the great struggles in our nation’s history.

How does setting accomplish that? Let’s look at some questions you can ask about setting to understand how it works. All of these questions key us in to what the author might be trying to do with their description of setting.

Questions to Ask Yourself as You Read Setting

1. Is the setting real or imagined?

2. Is the setting the Antagonist? Are we dealing with a Man v. Setting style story like London’s “To Build a Fire?”

3. Is setting being used to set the mood?

4. Is setting being used to foreshadow an event of the story.

5. Is setting keeping us aligned with the time of day, why or why not?

6. Has the author used setting to tell us something about character?

7. Can you imagine the story set in another place? Would it work as well?

8. Are the choices the author made about setting realistic? Do they make sense?

9. Has the author gone overboard? Used too much or too little setting?

10. How does the choice of the setting effect the pace of the story?

11. How does the setting relate to the theme?

12. Can you look at the setting through the eyes of the character(s)?

13. Has the writer invoked all of your senses to create the setting?

It’s the overall effect of the answers to these questions that makes setting work.

An Example of Setting from The Pale King

Gabriel Sistare reminded me of this beautiful piece of setting from The Pale King the other day on her blog:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

Gabriel’s analysis of this paragraph is beautiful and you should read it, but I want to look at it in a little different way.

First, let me point out that these are all grains native to Illinois. You might or might not know that, but by the second page you know the story is about Illinois and all of a sudden you’re taken back to these grains. Just for fun, I entered the address of the Peoria Illinois IRS office on google maps and switched to satellite view. You can actually see the river and the trees and the fields that Wallace must have been thinking of when he wrote this paragraph. In this first paragraph, we know we’re in the agrarian heartland of America.

We also know from this paragraph that the characters will need to exhibit signs of being from that heartland. Not all must be completely swallowed by it, but some may be. In the above example of setting, on the very first page, in the very first paragraph Wallace decides he wants us to know where this story will take place. Authors as talented as Wallace don’t take decisions like that lightly. Your job, as a reader, is to try to figure out why the author did what he/she did and, then, whether those choices led to an impactful story. Studying setting is part of being an active reader.

Get Involved with Setting: Additional Resources

For some interesting exercises in exploring setting check out:

Infinite Atlas which is one man’s two year journey to plot the real life settings mentioned in Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

JoyceWays is an app designed by students from Boston College which has you walk the path Bloom walked in Ulysses by James Joyce.

What are your favorite examples of setting? How did setting impact the story you were reading or maybe even one you wrote?


  1. Chris Ciolli (@ChrisCiolli)

    Setting definitely deserves more credit, especially when it is well written. One of my favorite settings is the imaginary world created by Lemony Snicket the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” series. I also really enjoyed India and Spain as described in Javier Moro’s Passion India.

    1. Brandon Monk

      Nice suggestions. I need to check them out. You always mention good stuff I haven’t managed to read yet.

  2. Andrew Blackman

    Excellent point! I am sometimes a setting-skimmer as well, but you’re right that it’s important.

    I think that writers also need to play their part, though. If we readers are going to spend our time reading those long descriptions of a snowy morning or a gritty urban landscape, then those settings should really play a well-thought-out role in the story and the development of character. In the examples you give here and in many other books they do just that, but sometimes I’ve got frustrated by reading a passage where it seemed to be written purely for the author’s love of their own powers of description, and didn’t seem to add anything, unless I missed the point.

    1. Anita

      That’s what I was thinking. When the writer does it well, I don’t want to skip the description.

    2. Brandon Monk

      Thanks. I agree. Some setting is easier to read. It seems in stories we want every detail to mean something and if we can’t get at that meeting it’s superfluous detail, and then we’d be better of reading some beautiful poetry.

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