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Literary Element - Setting

“The setting of a story--its location in time and place--helps readers share what the characters see, smell, hear, and touch, as well as makes the characters’ values, actions, and conflicts more understandable.  Whether a story takes place in the past, present, or future, its overall credibility may depend on how well the plot, characterizations, and setting support one another.” (from Through the Eyes of a Child by Donna E. Norton, fourth edition)

Different types of literature have their own requirements as far as setting in concerned.  When a story is set in an identifiable historical period or geographical location, details should be accurate.  Plot and characters also should be consistent with what actually occurred or could have occurred at that time and place.  Some settings are so well known that just a few words place readers immediately in the expected location, e.g. “Once upon a time”.  In some books, setting is such an important part of the story that the characters and plot cannot be developed without understanding the time and place.  In other stories the setting only serves as a backdrop.

The setting helps the reader understand the time and place of the story. There are several things the setting can do for a story:

  • The setting may help determine the mood for the story. In Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott (2010), Benno the cat observes his World War II-era neighborhood as it shifts from an amicable, multi-cultural community to a hateful, violent atmosphere due to the Nazi presence. Other strong examples of setting as mood include Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham (2010) and Steel Town by Jonah Winter (2008).

  • The setting may be an antagonist (barrier) to the character, as in stories where the environment is harsh and the character has to fight to survive. In The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (2003), a community living underground must fight time and the possibility of living in a pitch-black environment when their sole source of electrical power threatens to die out.  Other strong examples of setting as antagonist include Diamond Willow by Helen Frost (2008) and Kami and the Yaks by Andrea Stenn Stryer (2007).

  • The setting may give the reader background about a time in history or provide a social context. In Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata (2006), the reader learns of the injustices toward certain Americans citizens during World War II. The movement of a Japanese American family and most of their neighbors to an internment camp provides the historical and social context for the story’s plot. Other strong examples of setting as historical background include A Song for Harlem by Patricia C. McKissack (2007) and the other books in McKissack’s “Scraps of Time” series.

  • The setting may be a symbol that represents the author’s message to the reader (the story’s theme). The setting of The Curious Garden by Peter Brown (2009), an abandoned railway that becomes a lush garden, represents the ideal that one person’s actions can change the world.

Suggested Books with a Strong Element of Setting:


Cunnane, Kelly. For You are a Kenyan Child. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006.

Hucke, Johannes and Muller, Danie. Pip in the Grand Hotel. New York: North South, 2009.

Levine, Ellen. Henry’s Freedom Box. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.

Manushkin, Fran. The Shivers in the Fridge. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2006.

Stryer, Andrea Stenn. Kami and the Yaks. Palo Alto: Bay Otter Press, 2007.


Bunting, Eve. Pop’s Bridge. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006.

DiCamillo, Kate. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2006.

McKissack, Patricia C. A Song for Harlem. New York: Viking, 2007.

Winter, Jonah. Steel Town. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008.

Wiviott, Meg. Benno and the Night of Broken Glass. Minneapolis: Kar-Ben Publishing, 2010.


Avi. The Seer of Shadows. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Frost, Helen. Diamond Willow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Kahohata, Cynthia. Weedflower. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006.

Park, Linda Sue. A Long Walk to Water. New York: Clarion Books, 2010.

Roy, Jennifer. Yellow Star. Tarrytown, New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2006.


Identifying Elements of Setting - K-2  Students identify the setting of a story and its relationship with the story line.

Identifying Elements of Setting - 3-6  Students identify and compare changes in setting from the beginning to end of a story.

Updated by Kristi Harper and Connie McCain
February, 2011

This page was last updated on February 10, 2011.