When you hear the word setting, you probably look around the room. Where are you? What do you see? And while I agree that, that is a part of the picture, there is so much more to setting than your location.
Settings establish context for characters and plot. They don’t come out of nowhere. Well if yours do, you have a problem 🙂
Settings should be visceral and vivid and allow us to experience the world the author is building as if we are one of the characters within the narrative.
How much detail is necessary? It depends. You should provide lavish detail for important scenes, settings that you will be going back to time and time again, and settings that are new to the reader requiring more detail to visualize in their minds.
Use only a line or two for less important settings that you will only be visiting once or settings your reader is already familiar with.
With Sci-Fi and Historical novels, setting becomes an important part of the story. The setting doesn’t have to be real but it does have to be believable.
Writing historical novels, do your research and throw in some things that you would expect during the time period. Not just the architecture and furnishings, but what was the culture like? What customs did they follow?
Writing Sci-Fi, keep in mind you’re creating a world. Your setting needs to be very detailed. Help your reader to see what you see!
The novel I am writing is set in the present and uses settings that are familiar to the people who would be reading the story. For instance, my main characters meet at IHOP. When I say IHOP, I don’t have to provide a lot of detail because everybody knows IHOP and immediately conjures it up in their mind.
While I am in no way putting myself on the same level as the writer Jane Austin, I found it amusing that in her book Pride and Prejudice, she didn’t put a lot of detail in her settings. Why you may wonder. She knew her readers at the time the book was written, and knew they would be able to visualize the places she referred to without a lot of detail.
Settings also evoke mood. In horror stories, your description of a haunted house should evoke fear in your readers. In a mystery your setting should evoke suspense and curiosity. In a comedy your setting should evoke laughter or an anticipated thrill.
Settings provide information about your character. How does their home look? Is it messy, neat, compulsively organized? Do they surround themselves with darkness or light?
Settings can be used to foreshadow and to provide a metaphor(Animal Farm and The Majestic are good examples).
Settings evoke the passage of time.
Settings incorporate culture and customs familiar to the place and time period you are working with.
Never underestimate the importance of your setting! There is so much information on the subject. You once again get the cliff notes, but I hope they spark your interest, and get you thinking about your own settings, and how they are used in your work.