Neither a saggy sofa nor a hard chair be! (A few thoughts on setting) Andrew J Chamberlain

The best setting is a compromise between the literary equivalents of the saggy sofa and the hard chair. I want to explore setting with you, and present the case for the best settings being both credible and immersive.

What is setting?

Setting is the moment, or moments in time and space where your story happens. It’s the moment in time, past, present or future where the story is set.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is set at the turn of the 19th Century, in Hertfordshire and London.

Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is set in the late 1940’s mainly in a little fishing boat off the coast of Cuba, near the capital Havana.

Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom is set in the city in 1940, just after the civil war.

Whilst there are an infinite number of settings, I think there are only these two critical qualities that a setting must have.

The setting must be credible.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word credible as ‘able to be believed, convincing’.
The setting has to be capable of being believed. It doesn’t have to be true, it doesn’t even have to be true to life, but it does have to be an environment that the reader can believe might exist. The reader has to trust the setting.

For this to happen the setting must be consistent within itself, and it must not contain errors which, if the reader spots them, will throw her out of the story.

As an example of internal consistency, imagine reading The Lord of the Rings, and finding that when Gandalf is stuck at the top of the Tower at Isengard, he gets his mobile phone out and calls for help. It might be temporarily funny, but in the long term it would destroy the consistency of the setting, and damage the story itself. Or imagine a Jacobite tale with steam engines, or almost any kind of novel where the weather seems to fluctuate from polar to tropical with no explanation. Unless an inconsistency is a specific conceit of the novel, it’s going to jar on the reader.

The same is true with simple factual errors. If you set your story in London and your character walks from Waterloo Station to the National theatre in ten minutes, that’s believable, the distance is less than half a mile. If your character walks from Waterloo Station to Camden Market (a distance of about four miles) in ten minutes readers who know this will stop ‘believing’ in your story.

Setting is like the seat our reader sits in. The question they will be asking, albeit subconsciously is – can this seat hold me, am I safe with it? If the reader sees something inconsistent or wrong, it’s the literary equivalent of the seat collapsing under you. The credible setting shares the qualities of a sturdy chair, the reader can trust the setting to hold their weight.

The setting must be immersive.

The adjective immersive derives from the verb to immerse, meaning ‘to involve oneself deeply in a particular activity or interest.’

The reader must not only trust your setting, they must also be able to lose themselves in it. To do this, your setting must have the necessary richness of detail to capture and enthral them.

Daphne Du Maurier brilliantly captures the readers of Rebecca, right at the start of her book with this first sentence:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

With these few words, the writer gives Manderley, the house that features as the main setting of the story, a mystique that attracts us as readers.

An immersive setting is often presented through vivid and often sensory description. 

Part of the appeal of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the sweep and majesty of Middle Earth. One of the reasons reads love the Harry Potter series so much is the rich sense of mystery and wonder that the author evokes in the work.

But this immersiveness on its own is not enough. A great setting is

achieved not simply by creating a rich environment, first the setting must be credible, so that readers can trust it, then it can be immersive enough to capture them.
uncomfortable to sit on after a while, but an immersive setting that is not credible is like a old saggy sofa, you might find yourself falling through it and onto the floor if it can’t take your weight.

A credible setting that is not immersive is like a sturdy chair that is

The best setting takes the qualities of each of these features and combines them, so that the setting becomes like a sturdy but comfortable armchair, it can hold you, but it’s also a place you are happy to sit in for as long as you want to.

Andrew Chamberlain is a writer and creative writing tutor. He is the presenter of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt, a podcast and author of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt Handbook containing the best advice and insight from 100 episodes of the podcast, and which will be published in October 2017. 


  1. Helpful post - I've been noticing exactly these kinds of inconsistencies while reviewing my own (finished but not finished ..) novel. For instance, if he left the house THEN, how come he's there so FAST? By rocket?!


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