Setting in fiction is a combination of time and place. Setting shows the context of your story. A murder mystery, for example, will be very different between present day New York and 1855 Edo.
How much setting plays a part in your story is up to you. You can keep it light, mention the place and time, and let your readers fill in the details. Or you can rely heavily on setting, fill in all the details, and force your readers to see exactly what you see. The more your setting is away from the everyday, the more description you will need. For example, if it’s in 1855 Edo, you will need loads of detail.
Where are we?
Even if you go light on setting, you will need to give your readers some description along the way. You don’t want your characters to be acting in empty space. Are they inside or outside? If they’re outside, what season is it and how’s the weather? If inside, what kind of building or room are they in? Is it clean? Does it have nice furnishings? Who else is present? What are the other people doing? Provide some context so your readers can picture the story as it happens.
The setting should not be just a background. Have your characters interact with the objects you describe. Why does the study have a dartboard in it if the character never plays darts? If the lady of the house has a collection of ceramic dolls, she should be interested in talking about it.
When are we?
If it’s not the present, what year is it? You may not choose to say the year explicitly, but can still reveal when the story is taking place. What music is on the radio? Do radios even exist? How do people travel across town or from city to city? What kind of stores are there? What do the buildings look like and what materials were used in their construction?
The appearance of your characters also reveals the time. What are they wearing? What are their hairstyles? Do doctors and dentists exist yet? If not, the reader should encounter bad teeth and people with untreatable medical conditions. What products do your characters use? Medicines, electronics, tools, and books have all changed over time.
Current events also reveal the time. What president is giving a speech? Is the cold war still on? Has terrorism become a worldwide problem yet? Is it prohibition or the great depression? Daily life has been very different in past decades. There was a time when there was no social safety net. What will a character need to do to survive when they lose their job?
What does each character see?
Descriptions of setting given by the narrator or a character depend heavily on their personality. A detective is going to notice plenty of detail. A drunk is going to notice where the alcohol and glasses are kept and be vague on everything else. A narcissist is only going to notice what’s important to her. A pragmatist is going to skip over appearances unless there is some apparent use for a thing.
The mood of the storyteller will also affect their description. Did they just get fired or receive a huge bill? The world is negative. Did they just get a promotion or fall in love? Life is a heaven on earth.
The further your story is from a well known place and time, the more you will need to world build. What is the government like, if there is one? If there’s no government, is the society ruled by royals, religious leaders, gangs, or is it a free for all? What are the social conventions? What are the common problems and benefits of living in that time and place? You may be able to imagine the world of the story, but your readers could become completely lost. Where can you find some good examples of world building?
Science fiction writers world build all the time. They must because their stories take place on other planets or in the future. Science fiction may not be your favorite kind of story, but read a few best sellers and pay attention to how the authors create their worlds.
Use all five senses
Above all else, we are visual creatures. As you’ve read this article, you’ve visualized the ideas about description. Pictures aren’t everything. There will also be sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. Use all five senses to make your settings come alive.
You should now have a better idea of the importance of setting in fiction.