Creating a Good Novel Setting

The novel setting is the first thing you should pay attention to when you are writing the first few pages of your book. Why is that?

The setting, by definition, is the place and time at which you set your story. Settings in novels must be realistic to life. The sounds and the sights should be those that the reader is conversant with, those in real life, those that she can easily imagine.

The setting, therefore, is the background wherein all your action is going to take place.

Try to think of it in terms of a stage where actors perform. Before you can get your actors to perform, you must ensure, first of all, that your stage is set. Setting a stage will include putting in place features that are not merely symbolic, but are also pertinent to the play. For example, if a certain scene is going to take place at the foot of a large tree, you will set up a ‘tree’ in the middle of the stage. Though, of course, you are not going to get a real tree, uproot it and place it on the stage, you are going to ensure that you set up something rather realistic; something close to the real thing, so that those in the audience will perceive that it is a tree.

Sometimes, setting up a stage involves putting up a backdrop—essentially a painting—of the landscape, buildings, or other physical features against which the action takes place. This adds realism to the play, and makes it come alive.

Of course, we are not writing a play, but rather, a novel. But the principles are essentially the same. It is utterly absurd to ignore the setting when creating a scene for a play. It is the same when it comes to writing novels. It is utterly absurd to ignore the novel setting when writing a novel. Just like playwrights go to great lengths to develop the setting for the plays, you should likewise go to great lengths to develop the novel setting.

So how do you go about this business?

Bear in mind that the novel setting is part of the Expostion of your novel. Therefore, a major practice is to develop the setting in the first chapter. By default, novelists will state the place, country, and time during which the action in the novel occurred.

A good example is Charles Dickens. In his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, in his first chapter, he shows that the action takes place in two countries, of course, France and England. He also states the time, which he puts at 1775.  

He describes so completely the times in which the events in his novel took place:


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolisness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way...

Then he summarizes by saying that the times were pretty much like our own time. But of course, Dickens wrote this book over a hundred years ago, so when he says the times were pretty much like our own, he obviously is referring to the time in which he lived.

So you will see that Charles mentions not only the time and place, but also the circumstances and ambience at the time the action takes place.

Checking out how accomplished writers develop their setting and will help you to see how to create a good setting.

Naturally, the first chapter endeavours at creating the big picture in which all the action occurs.  Subsequent chapters will concentrate on lesser parts of this picture.

Just as an example, imagine that all your action occurs in a house. How are you going to develop your setting?

Obviously, in your first pages, you will describe the house—its appearance, and probably its location:

A large, white house at the end of 6th Avenue, fenced off by a huge, grey, concrete wall covered by a think carpet of creepers . Metal spikes were dotted all along the top of the wall. Old and rusty, these spikes were just visible, sticking out of the creepers.

The yard was full of huge trees, some of which could be assumed to be hundreds of years old.   These trees were quite tall and extremely leafy, making the yard look dark and mysterious.

The house itself was rather old. No one knew for sure when it was built, probably in the 19th Century. Rumour had it that it was built by a wealthy man of quite eccentric ways. This man, it was said, lived all alone. He had no wife, no children. Since it was odd for a man with such wealth not to marry at all, a lot of things were said about him that could give anyone heebie-jeebies. Then suddenly, one night, the man died in his sleep. About four families moved into the house thereafter, but they all evacuated in haste, claiming the house was wretchedly haunted. For a good five years, the house remained unoccupied.

It was this very ‘haunted’ house that the Jones moved into on the night of October 12, 2009. Having done some cleaning up and massive redecorating, they just succeeded to make it look less old, and less haunted.

Now, as you progress with the story, you will develop the action within this setting you have already established, i.e. in or around this house. For the most part, each scene you develop will be in a particular room in the house.

Luis loved reading in the study. There was a large table in the center of the room, with several chairs placed around it. These chairs offered just the right amount of comfort, at which comfort he could not fall asleep unless he was terribly tired. The lighting was also good—not too bright, not too dim, but just right. There were shelves of books all around, and hence, there was an abundance of reading material for his voracious mind to delve into.

On this day, Luis, as usual, was reading alone in the study. He had come across an interesting book, and this book had totally absorbed him. Apart from the slow, steady breathing, the flicking of the pages, and an occasional giggle, he made absolutely no sound and no movements. He would have continued in this state for an hour or two more, had he not got the increasingly uncomfortable feeling that someone was there in the room with him; someone he could not see. On numerous occasions, he looked up to ensure that what he had was just a feeling. But as time passed, the more uncomfortable he got. Finally he got up, clutching the book in his hand and looking about nervously.

“This is rather odd,” he said to himself.

“It is odd,” a husky voice said suddenly behind him. He turned sharply, but found himself staring at nothing but the bookshelf. All the hairs all his body stood on end. His eyes popping out of their sockets, his heart thumping heavily but skipping several beats, he rushed for the door, but upon reaching it, it banged shut in his face.

“Where are you going?” The voice said again. “You are stuck with me.”

“No…” Luis gasped, his face now bleached. Shaking like a leaf in the July wind, he crumbled to the floor….

You will notice that as you go on with the story, each new scene that you introduce will have to be described. But note carefully how you go about describing these scenes. You should weave your descriptions into your narrative as it tumbles along. You do not need to have a discernible structure that the reader can realize, rather, you should cleverly describe the setting along with the action.

For example, in the scene above, the sentence He turned sharply, but found himself staring at nothing but the bookshelf shows that from where Luis was sitting, there was a bookshelf right behind him. This is indeed a good way of bringing out certain details as the action tumbles along, don’t you agree?

What I will most strongly discourage in the creation of the novel setting is to come up with a rigid structure whereby each new scene is described in detail first before the action begins. I would rather you learn to describe the setting as the action proceeds. This makes your novel less monotonous and gives it a more fluid narrative that excites the reader.

Of course, in your first few pages, you should pay attention to creating the overall picture of your novel setting. Yeap, that you should do.

Your reader should get clear in your first pages these things:

  • Where the action in the book will take place
  • The time frame of the book
  • The atmosphere or ambience at the time


Once she gets that, then you have done a splendid job at creating the novel setting; yes that overall picture, against which your characters will act.

As your story tumbles along, you will concentrate on smaller more specific scenes, which are basically smaller parts of the big picture.

Remember, the novel setting is that large frame which defines the surrounding in which your actors will act.

I now leave you with an excerpt from my up-coming novel, The Graduates. In this excerpt, I develop part of the novel setting, by weaving it  into the narrative:

James carefully steered his bicycle through the crowded streets. There was a thoughtful expression on his face. He loved taking rides in the afternoon without any particular destination in mind. It helped to clear out his head.

He had just been accepted at the Copperbelt University. He was very excited about it. He had been looking forward to going to university most of his life. Not only did he want to get a good job in future, but he also wanted to earn everyone’s respect. Ever since he started school, James had been a hard worker. He came first in class all the time. What was more, his Grade Twelve examination results were among the best in the country. Now that he had made it to university, few, if any, were surprised. They had all expected it.

James’ family was very elated at the development. His parents were extremely ecstatic. Their son was going to be a university graduate. What else could any parent ask for? Since he was the firstborn, he could now assume his responsibilities fairly well. Upon completing, he could care for his two siblings; Samantha and George, both of whom were still at primary school and were doing exceptionally well.  

It was not just his family that was elated. His long line of relatives was very happy about this. They looked beyond the present benefits. Of course, James was going to get the highest form of education in the country. But what was also true was that there would now be more sources of income to satisfy their almost insatiable appetite for money. Could things get any better than they were?

James stayed in Luanshya. It was an average town on the mining province of Zambia. But, like most mining towns on the province, it was nearly a ghost town. The government policy of privatization, though good, seemed to have a downside as well. Some investors were more interested in fattening their own pockets than helping Zambia to get out of its economic shambles. Hence, due to neglect, the infrastructure was hardly in a good state. The mine itself looked as though a bomb had rocked through it. The town centre which consisted of a few dilapidated buildings was a sorry sight. There seemed to be dust settling everywhere.  Indeed, there was sadness on each and every face. It was a great shame. Luanshya, once their pride and joy, was now more or less depressing rubble.

James looked around with sadness in his eyes. It depressed him when he thought of how things had changed. He still remembered those days as a little boy when he and his siblings would spend some evenings catching some inshonkonono that hovered around the street lights. Now there were no more street lights and hence no more delicious inshonkonono to catch. The roads were frighteningly dark at night and most people were afraid of walking after sunset.

Most people had lost their jobs and new ones were not so easy to find. As a result, the rate of crime in Luanshya had soared to catastrophic levels. Aggravated robberies and murders were on the increase. Things were definitely not okay, and James felt that he as future leader, had a responsibility to help his town, his people.  Therefore, his going to school was also with a view to help return the dignity of Luanshya, his home town.

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