Developing Themes In Your Stories, Part 12: The Setting

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

We’ve already talked about how characters, plot, and conflict are frequent sources of literary themes. But one building block of storytelling that we haven’t covered yet is setting. It’s as important as the other three “blocks,” using location, time period, and other elements to play a pivotal role in the external conflict and the protagonist’s internal struggles. But did you know that setting can also influence the big-picture ideas that a story explores?

We’ll learn how in today’s edition of Developing Themes in Your Stories. Like with past articles, we’ll use examples from published novels to learn how their authors delivered some of their story’s themes through unique settings. Then, if you’d like, try some brainstorming and writing activities that are included to see how your story’s setting can be a conduit for theme.

The Five Facets of Setting

Most writers might think of setting as the “where” of a story. Setting has more layers than its location, though. It also covers the “when” of a story, since the time period and season can create obstacles to a character’s story-goal pursuit and introduce cultural and societal norms. And like real-life locations, a story’s setting can have its own unique issues (e.g., racial tensions, war, poverty) or purpose. A good example of the latter is the mental hospital in Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die. The primary purpose of the hospital brings mental health to the thematic forefront through Veronika’s interactions with other patients and her own existential crisis.

So when considering your story’s setting, keep these five “facets” in mind:

  1. Location: Where does the story take place? What specific locations (buildings, neighborhoods, etc.) are significant to the plot and/or characters?
  2. Time Period: What year does the story take place? How does this affect the characters or plot in terms of cultural or societal expectations, availability / lack of technology, and other elements that can evolve over time?
  3. Time of Year: During which month(s) and season(s) does the story occur? Does this present any challenges or obstacles (weather, nature, etc.) that are relevant?
  4. Purpose: How does the purpose of any particular location influence what happens during the story?
  5. Other Notable Elements: What societal issues are inherent in this setting? What historical events have transpired here? How do they influence the plot or characters during the story?

Before we answer these questions for our own stories, check out the example settings below. Most, if not all, of the five facets listed above are addressed in each summary:

Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer (steampunk fantasy) is set on the Shima Isles, a fictional archipelago inspired by feudal Japan. Spirit animals such as thunder tigers once roamed the land. Today, however, the islands are ruled by a ruthless military dictator, and the realm’s dependence on industrialization has led to widespread pollution, deforestation, and disease – as well as the disappearance of its mythical creatures.

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (YA / New Adult contemporary) takes place at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the protagonist Cath and her twin sister Wren are freshmen. The story goes on to show some of the issues that college students can face during their freshman year, from Cath’s tensions with her roommate and struggles with first love and meeting people, to her sister’s increasing drinking habits.

Activity #1: Examine your story’s setting using the Five Facets of Setting. If it helps, answer the sample questions listed with each facet to go as in-depth as possible. Feel free to try this exercise with published novels you’ve read as well.

How Does the Setting Impact the Story?

In order for themes to emerge from a setting, the story has to, in some ways, rely on its setting. In other words, the setting and its unique elements should influence the story to the point that the story would be drastically different – or might not exist at all – if it took place at a different time or location. This is where the Five Facets come in play.

Take a moment to review your story’s plot and characters. (It might be helpful to have a premise sentence or brief synopsis, as well as an idea for the story’s inciting incident.) Then consider how these elements are influenced by the Five Facets. Asking questions such as “What if the story took place 50 years in the past / future?” or “How would the story be different if pollution wasn’t an issue?” can jump-start the process. Or, if the setting’s impact is already evident in your premise or synopsis, consider some “if-then” statements that show how the setting is integral to the story.

In some cases, the answers or “if-then” statements might indicate that little about the story would change. But in others, it will be clear that the plot and the setting are so tightly interwoven that the former needs the latter for its events to make sense.

Let’s take the “if-then” statement approach and get a better understanding of how story and setting are interconnected in our two examples:

Stormdancer: The plot depends heavily on the features of Stormdancer’s fictional world. For example, if thunder tigers weren’t rumored to still exist on the Shima Isles, then the protagonist Yukiko wouldn’t have accompanied her father, an imperial hunter, on a quest to capture one. Nor would she have gotten lost in one of Shima’s last remaining jungles with such a creature. Also, if the land was ruled by a more compassionate leader and wasn’t plagued by various disasters, Yukiko might not have joined forces with a group of rebels who were plotting to overthrow the regime.

Fangirl: While high school could have been an appropriate setting for Fangirl, it wouldn’t have the unique hallmarks of “growing up” that come with a college setting. It’s because of the college setting that Cath chooses to isolate herself in her room on weekends (and not just to write fanfiction), and that Wren adopts a more rebellious, live-in-the-present mentality. Yet it’s also the place where Cath eventually steps out of her comfort zone by making new friends and falling in love while learning to feel comfortable in her own skin.

Activity #2: Review the premise sentence, inciting incident, and/or synopsis of your WIP. Determine how your story’s plot and/or characters are influenced by the Five Facets of Setting. Write down as many “what if” scenarios, “if-then” statements, and related questions as you’d like to discover your story’s relationship with its setting.

What Themes Emerge from the Story-Setting Relationship?

The “what if” approach might sound familiar if you’ve read Part 3 of Developing Themes In Your Stories (which focused on the external conflict). Those scenarios, along with the “if-then” statements and other questions, can highlight some of the story’s themes. They don’t just emphasize how the story would change if the setting was different – they also reveal the high-level concepts arising from the story-setting relationship.

Re-read the statements you developed during Activity #2. What themes emerge as part of the setting’s significance to the story? Would these ideas still be present if any of the Five Facets were different? Don’t forget to take our working definition of “theme” into account. Themes will recur throughout a story and be tied to the protagonist’s external and internal journeys. So, take the extra step to examine the setting’s influence at different points in the story, or compare the setting’s themes with those from previous Developing Themes exercises. The deeper a theme is ingrained in your story, the more it will resonate with readers.

Here are some setting themes from our two examples. Can you think of others that might also apply?

Activity #3: Using your Activity #2 statements, identify any themes that emerge from the story’s setting. How are these ideas connected to the Five Facets you listed during Activity #1? Once you’ve finished, compare your list of themes to those you created for past Developing Themes exercises. Do any appear repeatedly throughout the story?

How is setting important to your WIP? What themes does it present because of its location, time period, season, and/or related elements? How does setting play a significant role in some of your favorite stories?

Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.


    Interesting, Sara!
    Most of my trilogy takes place on and around a huge 1930s style ocean liner, steaming through the ocean, rivers and lakes of a largely unknown and uninhabited primeval world. It even takes to the air in the last battle, all eighty thousands tons of it! We become familiar with the liner, which is also almost a character in its own right, a moveable feast of Art Deco, a floating ‘city’ in search of a lost city. Cities, lost or otherwise, are my other main settings.

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks, John! I remember you telling me about the trilogy’s setting before. How do you think it plays into the trilogy’s themes? Or at least, the themes of the first book?

      • JOHN T SHEA

        I am a ‘planner’ in some ways, but a ‘pantser’ in others. I did not consciously plan much about themes for my trilogy, but focussed on spectacle, wonder and danger, all from the viewpoint of my teenage observer/narrator/protagonist.

        Your question stumped me at first. But then just rereading your examples made me realise what themes my trilogy shares with them. Power, politics, man and the natural world. Coming of age and friendship.

        My mighty liner certainly represents, even embodies, power and politics and man’s attempt to ‘conquer’ the natural world. A newspaper tycoon charters it, fills it with thousands of volunteers, arms it and them to the proverbial teeth, and they all set off in search of a fabulous lost city, shooting everything in sight, including their own proverbial feet! And they’re the GOOD guys!

        Encounters with storms, sea monsters, and the BAD guys show them the limits of their power and technology, which is another theme. The ship which seems so vast and powerful at first is dwarfed by the natural setting it navigates, and looks toy-like when viewed from an observation balloon in several scenes.

        My young protagonist makes friends, and enemies, and grows up about as much as one can expect in a week, even if it is about as eventful a week as one can imagine. The inevitable proximity on even a very large ship contributes to that.

        I might summarise the above themes as innocence or naivity, a touching faith in the trilogy’s mix of ancient alien and 1930s Earth technology, a faith which is repeatedly shaken but not completely destroyed.

        • JOHN T SHEA

          ‘Realize’ not ‘realise’ and ‘naivety’ not ‘naivity’. My spellchecker is AWOL, another example of the limits of technology!

        • Sara Letourneau

          I think it’s hard to consciously plan for themes unless you truly know what your themes are when you begin the first draft. You can nurture themes once you realize which ones are popping up, but when the initial idea for the story first hits you, it’s impossible (well, maybe not impossible, but definitely challenging) to see its heart. So you did the right thing by focusing on the elements that were easier to convey (the spectacle, wonder, and danger of the sea voyage) and discovering the themes later on.

          Speaking of which: That sounds like an excellent mix of themes in your trilogy. I can definitely see how the ocean liner setting would influence or foster those themes. 🙂

  • sjhigbee

    You’re right – this can be a crucial plank in the story and some authors are very effective at making their setting another character in their work. I always think of C.J. Sansom’s London in his Matthew Shardlake series and Terry Pratchett’s chaotic city Ank-Morpak. Not only do they provide a vibrant backdrop, but also encompass many of the themes these two writers have running through their writing, especially inequality. And Pratchett also has a bee in his bonnet about letting people find their own levels in society with absolutely minimum input from Big Government.

    • Sara Letourneau

      ^^ I really need to read the Discworld series. I’ve been meaning to, but you might have just sealed the deal with this comment. I’d love to see how Pratchett handles those themes in his work.

      On a related note: You’ve read part of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, right? Would you agree that it’s another book / trilogy where the setting influences many of its literary themes? I can think of a few off the top of my head.

      Thanks as always for reading and commenting, Sarah. 🙂

      • sjhigbee

        Oh, you’re absolutely right! The first two books really tick that box – and I MUST get hold of THE STONE SKY – it’s down to you that I picked up THE FIFTH SEASON in the first place:)).

  • Stormdancer is on my tbr list, and I’m looking more forward to it now! I find stories who depend on their settings fascinating, and I think it helps me as a reader dive further into the story’s world. I can’t picture my novel’s setting being changed–it wouldn’t be the same story at all.

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