Setting: The Forgotten Element

Originally Published: June 2012

by Emily Goodman

“Setting is like the forgotten child in writing,” said Michele Burke, editor at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House Children’s Books, at the January 2012 Professional Lecture.

It’s much less talked about than voice or character. Yet, Burke said, “mining your setting can help tell your story.”

She defined setting as “the world your characters inhabit” and added, “There’s an emotional heft to places.” While ‘world-building’ is usually understood as necessary for fantasy writing, Burke said it’s important for any book set in an unfamiliar world, including historical fiction. In picture books, much of the setting is conveyed through the illustrations.

When introducing an unfamiliar setting, there’s a delicate balance between giving too much information and too little, Burke said. She advised writers to avoid these common pitfalls:

  1. Throwing the reader straight into the action. “Action must be balanced with information so the reader can understand what’s going on,” she said.
  2. Being deliberately mysterious. “If readers have no idea what’s going on, you’ve lost them.”
  3. Making the world too foreign. “Give readers something human they can relate to,” said Burke. “Balance the invitingly different with the comfortingly familiar.”
  4. Loading on too much inessential information. “Don’t be overly descriptive of physical details,” she said. “Before there’s a context for these details, readers can get lost. Focus on essentials in the early pages.”

Burke illustrated the importance of setting by reading aloud opening pages from several YA and MG novels she edited for Knopf and inviting audience members to discuss what they could tell about the main character and the coming action from the setting.

“Setting is not just ‘where’ and ‘when,’ but all the people and objects in the book’s world,” Burke said. “You can mine all these elements for your story. Objects that are dear to a character can show who that character is. Dialogue and voice can show where characters live and where they’ve been.”

Burke concluded, “Setting conveys story – through showing rather than telling.”


Emily Goodman is the author of the award-winning picture bookPLANT SECRETS, published by Charlesbridge. Follow Emily on Facebook!

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