Friday, March 8, 2013

Setting, Landscape, Atmosphere--How Are They Different?

"In every piece of fiction...setting is one of the three major elements--along with characterization and plot--that the writer must weave together to create the narrative." --Connie C. Epstein


Oh, the fun of setting--imagining where the story takes place, how characters respond to their surroundings, drinking in the sights, sounds, and smells that connect the reader to the written word--it's the world-building side of the writer's craft. I've been immersed in the subject this week as I've brainstormed ideas for my WIP. Along the way I've sought the wisdom of others to help open up that world. Helpful thoughts on the subject:

"There are lots of things you can do with setting. Setting adds color to the story. Setting affects characters. Setting lends authenticity to the narrative, and paints pictures in the imagination of readers." --Nancy Lamb, The Art and Craft of Story Telling.

"Settings..aren't just backdrops. Just by where you have the action happening will tell a lot about the action itself and the people involved." --Ansen Dibell, Plot

"Setting grounds your writing in the reality of place and depicts the theme of your story through powerful metaphor. Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care. Without a place there is no story." --Nina Munteanu, scribophile


And yet, expanding on the idea of setting, I came across the concept of landscape, this from Elizabeth George in her book Write Away:

"On the surface, it would appear that landscape and setting are the same creatures, identical twins given different names just to confuse the beginning writer. This, however, would not be the truth since setting is where a story takes place--including where each scene takes place--while landscape is much broader than that...Landscape in writing implies much the same as that which is implied by the word when it's used to refer to a location in a country: It is the broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual settings of the novel, sort of like the canvas or other medium onto which a painter has decided to daub color.

"You need to think about the landscape of your book because if you're able to make the landscape of place real, you can make the land itself real, which gives you a leg up on making the entire novel real for the reader."


But there's more. If the nuanced differences between setting and landscape are not enough, what about the idea of atmosphereJanet Burroway in her classic, Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, puts it this way: "Your fiction must have an atmosphere because without it your characters will be unable to breathe."

"Like many of the terms that relate to the elements of fiction, 'atmosphere' has more than one meaning," Burroway writes. "Sometimes referring to subject matter, sometimes to technique. Part of the atmosphere of a scene or story is its setting, which includes the locale, period, weather, and time of day. Part of the atmosphere is its 'tone,' an attitude taken by the narrative voice that can be described, not in terms of time and place, but as a quality--sinister, facetious, formal, solemn, wry, and so on...As we need to know a character's gender, race, and age, we need to know in what atmosphere she or he operates to understand the significance of the action."

Setting, landscape, atmosphere. Separate entities yet connected.The first puts you in the action. The second contains the story's broader vista. The third enables the characters to breathe. Had you ever considered the varying distinctions? How so? Will you imagine your setting with a different understanding now?

photos courtesy of


  1. Additionally, setting, landscape and atmosphere get filtered through the viewpoint character, and that's what makes writing fun! Through my characters, I get to see the world differently.

  2. So true, Cathy! We can't separate the key elements out on their own. They all play off each other, don't they? Have a great weekend :-)

  3. My WIP is in an isolated manor house--this post has inspired me to really make sure that the location itself is a character, rich in detail and purpose! Thanks, Kenda!

  4. My last WIP was a strange world. Can't talk much about it, I enjoyed creating it from the MC'S viewpoint. Love the picture.

  5. I like the distinction between landscape and setting. Very pithy. My current WIP is set in Victorian London, and I have so enjoyed the research involved. Half the time, now, I feel like I'm living in the Victorian Era. :-)

  6. Having just watched "the Oscars," I am reminded of the many categories of awards. Things like lighting and set design are the visual equivalents of atmosphere and landscape. I see now why they are so important!

  7. BTW: I just left an award for you on my blog. Check it out.

  8. Yes, I think I will! :-) Thanks so much for the inspiration!