Home: a place where one lives; at the place where one lives; or returning by instinct to a place. A setting is home is many ways and has probably one of the first and most valuable functions.
The obvious type of setting is place. Where the characters of the story reside. But setting is not always as simple as just a place and shouldn’t be decided without careful thought. The setting of a story creates atmosphere. And atmosphere promotes a reader’s understanding of what kind of story the reader is going to read as well as establishing how the reader may settle into the experience. Thus, setting produces mood.
The aim for any writer is to extract an emotional response from the reader: sadness, joy, empathy, bouts of giggling, tension, love, rapid heartbeat, or the pain from a thumb having quickly turned pages. The right setting is the tool. Take for instance the Star Wars movie. On entering the Mos Eisley cantina, the viewer finds himself in a dimly-lit tavern offering strange patrons from other planets, alcohol, up-beat tunes, and an overall tension for possible violence. Immediately, curiosity sharpens. Where is this? The viewer most definitely feels like they have been drawn into a place few have experienced. What is going to happen?
A movie can instantly take a viewer to a place. But what about a non-visual narrative? Words need to accomplish what the camera can more easily bring about. When thinking of books by John Steinbeck, especially Of Mice and Men, on the first chapter the reader is given a visual setting of where the characters have first arrived: in the woods near Soledad, California. Always remember, writers, a setting in the woods means something is going to happen…pay attention readers!
Right away, Steinbeck offers a feeling of wilderness, animal behavior, including human-animal behavior, the wilds of the past, the barren hope of the main protagonist George, and the wasteland awaiting both characters as George and his antagonist Lennie discuss their future from the employment at a new ranch.
Of Mice and Men is a textbook for experiencing the Elements of a Story. Each chapter opens with the setting and establishes the mood for that segment of the plot.
Of course, if you haven’t read Of Mice and Men, I strongly encourage you to do so. Steinbeck is one of the great writers of the 20th Century and a 1962 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature for his volume of work. Most of it set in the Soledad area.
But consider other novel settings that once they were read continued to remain in memory: Courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird; Hogwarts in Harry Potter; Overlook Hotel in The Shining; the solitary room and St. Petersburg in Crime and Punishment; Wonderland in Alice and Wonderland, Oz in the Wizard of Oz.
Oh my! And in listing these stories, a reader of them will also remember from the setting its characters, plot and important scenes. For reflecting on setting triggers memory.
Remember this trigger when developing a setting for your own work. Instead of merely giving a report of where the story is taking place, offer enough detail that your reader renders it—bring it to life.