What is setting in literature? In the simplest of terms, it’s where and when the action of a story takes place. Whether set in a real location or a world drawn from your fertile imagination, in the past, present, or future, setting forms the foundation of every story.
As I wrote in my 2019 post entitled The 7 Layer Cake Writing Method, without a firm foundation, a story will crumble! But when setting overwhelms all other elements, stories are in danger of becoming too dense and difficult to swallow. So how do writers find the setting sweet spot? Trust me, I struggle with this issue, too. So let’s review some impressive impressive mentor texts together. You won’t be surprised to find that many of these books or series are so visually enticing, they’ve been turned into popular movies!
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling: No post about setting could possibly ignore Hogwarts Castle, Diagon Alley, Platform 9 3/4, Gringotts Bank, and the Dursley’s house, which are only a few of the fantastical settings in this magical series. You can well imagine how easy it would have been for setting to overwhelm the plot and other story elements, but Rowling deftly interweaves all elements into a symbiotic, immensely compelling whole. If you haven’t read these wonderfully inventive novels, get thee to a library or bookstore post haste. The invisibility cloak, wands, brooms, house colors, owls, a bevy of assorted creatures, and the Sorting Hat lend depth and excitement to the world of Harry Potter. Is it any wonder this series has been translated to movies and a theme park attraction? Trust me, you’re never too old to enjoy this series or get your own wand.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J. J.R. Tolkien: Hmmm… notice how two of the all-time master world-builders used initials starting in J? A coincidence, I hope, and not a prerequisite. Being serious now, what they have in common is magic-laden, intricately developed fantasy. Middle Earth as created by this author and scholar is the land of hobbits, elves, wizards, dwarves, evil lords, so richly described, the images will be indelibly imprinted in your brain. Considered the greatest epic fantasy series ever written, these novels have been translated to over 40 languages and countless versions. It’s no surprise this series has been turned into captivating movies with brilliant costumes, drool-worthy characters, high-stakes plots, and adventure, danger, and deception at every turn.
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall: It’s only fair that I choose an example from realistic fiction. The way Pearsall gives physical descriptions in this MG novel is masterful, and she feeds readers the perfect amount of setting and supportive details to keep us intrigued without overwhelming us. The story begins on November 9, 1963 in Washington, D.C., with the brutal attack on a homeless man by 13-year-old Arthur Owens making front page news in three newspapers. This is such a clever way to introduce the novel’s setting, both time and place. But Pearsall also brilliantly introduces the main character, the emotional reason behind the attack, and his “one chance to make things right.” There are more than seven reasons I recommend this book for you as well as for preteen readers. And I could totally see this being turned into a movie.
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen: This is an immensely powerful and realistic Upper MG/YA novel that features an angry, violent 15-year-old repeat juvenile offender named Cole Matthews. With prison his only other option, Cole fakes humility and accepts Native American Circle Justice, thinking it will be a cakewalk. But the remote Alaskan Island he’s sequestered on for an entire year forces Cole to fight internal and external demons. Man oh man, the setting is so vivid, so dangerous, Cole nearly dies from an attack by the “spirit” bear before learning to take responsibility for his life and his actions. Not only is this a gritty mentor text for setting, it engenders meaningful classroom, family, and homeschooling discussions.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan: I couldn’t resist adding this gorgeously written YA fantasy to my list. Here is a snippet from my October 25, 2019 post (click here ) that describes the plot: The human heroine, Lei, is brutally torn from her country home and carted to the hidden palace to become one of eight beautiful concubines to the bull-like, superstitious Demon King. Known as Paper Girls, each of them is called to serve him for a year: a true honor to some, an unimaginable horror to others. The setting is so well drawn, you’ll be able to imagine every inch of the fictional land of Ikhara, where full humans (Paper) rank well below the Steel and Moon castes. As with the other fantasies I’ve highlighted, the characters and costumes in what will soon become a three-book series are exceptionally creative and memorable. To read Marti Johnson’s December 24, 2019 review of the 2nd book in the series, Girls of Storm and Shadow, click here.
The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins: This groundbreaking sci-fi novel ushered in the genre of dystopian novels. In this horrifying portrait of our future world, each of 22 districts are forced to sacrifice a victim for a gladiator-style, fight-to-the-death “game” staged for the entertainment of the Capital elite. Though published in 2008, the glittering Capital and its vapid, soulless residents, the brutal arena and its inventive death-traps, and the oppressed districts and their desperate inhabitants, remain every bit as shocking and compelling today. It’s no surprise that once again, this highly descriptive, exceptionally well written series was turned into a popular movie series.
Stone Angel, written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Katie May Green: This gorgeously written, deeply emotional picture book deserves to be on every “best of setting” list. The main character is a young Jewish girl forced to flee her beloved Paris with her younger brother and parents when Nazis invade. Yolen brings the setting alive, with stone angels and gargoyles watching over the city’s residents, stars twinkling in the sky and glaring on clothes, brown shirts terrifying and threatening, and the forest dark and protective. All combine to express joy, love, despair, hope, and triumph. And the softly brushed illustrations by Green bring the glorious setting details to life.
There are MANY more books I could list, but I’d love to hear from you. Please share YOUR favorite settings!!