How to Describe Setting in Novels

Posted by Kristen Hamilton on December 27, 2020 at 4:35 PM

Setting is one of the elements that makes up an author's writing style: Some authors describe their book's setting thoroughly, whereas other authors are light on the details.

In many cases, setting is an auxiliary element to build the reading experience and draw the reader deeper into your story. But in other cases, such as in sci-fi or fantasy books, setting is known as world building and is a crucial, non-negotiable element (more on this later!).

What is setting in writing?

Setting can help lend to the overall book's mood. In Barrett Schmanska's crime novel Ghost Puppet, a setting described with dense fog, slow-moving cars, and low visibility give the readers a feeling of being trapped along with the book's main character (who experiences a sense of unease) on the ferry.

In many cases, if your book takes place in the modern world, describing the setting can take a backseat—after all, we are all familiar with a range of common settings. In these cases, you can go relatively light on describing the setting without the reader feeling like he's missing much. This is especially true for plot-driven works of fiction such as thrillers (apart from important scenes where you can use the setting to build up your story's mood).

If your book takes place in a certain period of history, be sure to clarify to readers what's going on to orient them in time and place. In an early draft of The Wednesday Night Warriors by VF Adamson, the author describes the setting: 

"It was 1975. Pierre Trudeau was now into his second majority government, even after the October crisis when the country nearly came apart at the seams, the Progressive Conservative leader Bob Stanfield resigned much to the disappointment of our town paper and most of the people in town, and Canada had initiated its terrified public for the idea of the metric system."

This helped clarify the cultural climate and what was going on at a national level. Another way to draw readers into the story in works of historical fiction is to have the characters interact with things that are clearly from this era:


    • A character can make a phone call using a rotary phone
    • They can get a flight back home on Pan Am airlines
    • Characters can use common phrases from the time period (such as “Groovy'') or notice specific seventies decor (shag carpeting, wood paneling)


The opposite is true if you're writing fantasy or sci-fi, however. Foreign worlds are in absolute need of setting development, known in these cases as world building.

In a recent manuscript critique I did for Tanya S.M. Kennedy's A Maiden in the Foxcombe, the manuscript's first draft glossed over details of the city Spiregarden, set in a fantastical world. It wasn't clear how many people lived there, if there was a king and queen in rule or if it was a democracy, how affluent the community was, or the role of its women (a particularly important concept in her books, which always feature strong women in a medieval world).

Furthermore, the city was described as “a city of stone and crystal,” but readers never really get to see the book's main character walking along the cobblestone streets, trailing a hand alongside a crystalline building. Showing your characters interacting with the world they're living in is crucial to developing your book's setting.

How to Describe Setting in Novels

I often recommend authors tap into the five senses—sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell—to give better descriptions of the worlds their characters live in. Minor details such as these, when described properly, can really fill out your novel and make the story and characters come to life. Incorporating more sensory details to bring the settings, locales, and experiences to life will only serve to improve the book as a whole and increase its readability.

Your book's setting can be made up of any number of circumstances, but here are some things to keep in mind:


    • If your character lives in a desert, does he or she ever feel the dry, arid wind or taste the dust on the breeze? 
    • What about the weather? Consider a rainstorm, or bitingly cold winds, or sweltering heat. 


In the case of A Maiden of the Foxcombe, which takes place during medieval times (no deodorant!), the main character never feels the gross wetness in her armpits on a hot day or gags at the stench of the unwashed soldiers.

You can incorporate these details through the characters' eyes. One of my favorite ways to integrate this is through action tags in dialogue scenes. During a conversation between two characters, one of the characters can look up at the tree-covered mountain and notice a bald eagle, gaze across the park where they're enjoying lunch, or smell the flowers on the breeze during sprintime. Just remember: Don't overdo it!

These are the questions I ask myself about the book's setting when doing a manuscript critique: 


    • Does the author portray a believable, interesting setting that draws the reader in?
    • Does the setting seem to fit the mood and serve the plot?
    • Are there too many or not enough (or too repetitive) locations in the book?
    • Are any locations boring or not good choices for the scene?
    • Does the author spend too much time describing the setting? Not enough?
    • Is the setting portrayed through the eyes of the characters or presented in flat narrative?


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Book editor Kristen Hamilton is the owner and sole employee of

Kristen Corrects, Inc., where she provides manuscript editing

services for traditionally and self-publishing authors. Several

authors whose books she has edited have won awards and

have topped Amazon's best sellers lists.

Reading is Kristen's passion, so when the workday is over, she

can usually be found curled up with a good book alongside her

four cats. She loves watching cat videos and scary movies,

eating pizza, teaching herself French, and traveling, and she is

likely planning her next vacation. She lives outside of Boise, ID.

Categories: writing

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