When students of literature refer to the setting of a story, more often than not, they are referring to the time and place in which the story occurs. In an effective short story, setting may not seem that prominent in the narrative at all. It seems to the reader to be more of a background than anything else. However, the setting can actually make things happen – it can help to drive the plot. The setting can prompt the characters to act, it can bring them to a realization or understanding that is crucial to the development of the story, or it can cause characters to reveal their hidden and innermost feelings or natures.
Of course, the idea of setting includes the physical environment in which a story takes place. It can be a house (Little House on the Prairie), a street (House on Mango Street), a city (Our Town), a landscape (Big Valley), or even a region (The South). Sometimes “the where” a story takes place is called its locale. While the physical environment of where a story takes place is important, setting may also involve other elements as well.
For example, a crucial component of the setting might be the time of the story – the hour, the year, or even the century. One crucial element of the story might be that it takes place at dawn or at midnight, or even the day when the astronauts landed on the moon. Some of the novels that we might read about the past – historical novels – must really develop the time period in which the story occurs because the reader must understand that he or she is not reading about the twenty-first century. The same thing can be said about science fiction novels that happen in the future.
Some literary critics might say that the setting of a story is much more than time and place. For these critics, the setting of a story is the whole society around the characters because it is within this social milieu that the characters develop their beliefs and assumptions about the world around them. In some situations, the time and place and social milieu in which the story takes place may not be as important as the weather.
For regional writers such as Mark Twain and William Faulkner, a sense of place is extremely important. These writers usually set their stories or novels in one geographic area and tries to bring this sense of place alive to readers who live elsewhere. Because these regional writers are often outside of the economic, political, and cultural centers of society, it is extremely difficult to bring that sense of place alive to readers. Regional writers like Mark Twain and William Faulkner show that a place can profoundly affect the character of those who grow up in it.
In some stories and novels, the writer will seem to illustrate the setting of the story as a way to develop some atmosphere for the action. In these stories, the storyteller is able to show the reader a way to feel the way the characters must feel in that environment. Sometimes, setting is secondary to many of these stories and sometimes nothing in the story could happen without it. Just as it is in life its own self, setting is unique in every story and illustrates the perspective that the author wishes the reader to see.