Setting, simply said, is the where and when of the story. Even if it is only ‘once upon a time in a kingdom far, far away’, it offers your reader an entry point into the tale. It is the rabbit hole through which the reader falls, willing to suspend reality and enter the world that the author has created — realistic or fantastic.
Setting can be achieved in various ways. It can be flimsy (and deliberately so) — the reader just gets a vague idea as to where all the action is taking place and at what point but the description is brief and there is not much emphasis on it. Or it can be greatly detailed with elaborate maps to the boot! How much narrative space is allotted to setting depends on what kind of story the author is writing. For instance, in books like Treasure Island where understanding the topography of the land is vital to understanding the text, setting is described intricately. Similarly, fantasy novels often carry maps of the world (s) in which the story is set. The purpose of this is two-fold — one is to enhance the reader’s understanding of all the action taking place. The other is to make the world more believable and therefore more absorbing to the reader. Books like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are examples of this.
Getting setting right is vital in genres like historical fiction where a slip-up can unravel the author’s efforts to grab the reader’s attention.
Classical novels usually pay a great deal of attention to setting. Take any of Jane Austen’s novels — even if the places in which the story is set are no more than two or three at best, they are described elaborately. Drawing rooms, ballrooms, parlours, even the insides of coaches come alive to the reader. Many modern and postmodern novels tend to do away with description. Readers, too, are more impatient with heavy descriptions that don’t really add much value to the storyline. Take RK Narayan’s Malgudi, for instance. Even though it is a fictitious town, he does away with ornate descriptions. We know the river Sarayu flows through Malgudi. Some street names come to mind. But beyond that, it is the characters who make the town come alive more than the scenery.
A setting well done is like the perfect chutney that compliments the dosa. For the reader to dig in, make sure you serve the right dose!