…It’s as important to good fiction as it is to real estate! The setting of a story does as much to draw in the reader as do strong characters, plot, and dialogue. You’ll confuse and lose your reader if he can’t feel at home in this place, this setting. Not that you need to go into as much detail as some authors do, but you need to anchor your story in a comfortable, identifiable harbor.
The lack of setting, subtle or detailed, can be as confusing to your reader as it was to the characters in an old Twilight Zone episode. I seem to remember a clown, a sailor, a ballerina and several others trapped in four walls, calling for help, disoriented and unnerved trying to determine where they were and how to reach the light they saw above them, which appeared to be the only exit. At the end we learn that they were actually toys in an open toy chest. Don’t let this happen to your reader!
Whether plot or character driven, no matter the genre, setting is essential. A romance novelist may devote more attention to the wild and colorful flora and panoramic views in the Hawaiian Islands than would the writer of crime fiction. But each would be sure to establish exactly where in the islands his story is set.
Some say the setting should be clear in the first paragraph, others the first sentence, but I think that decision is sometimes left up to your POV character. In a short story I wrote recently, the first thing Mike Broadhurst wakes up thinking about is his hangover and his loss, not the city in which he’s feeling like crap:
Mike Broadhurst blinked as the sun streamed in through layers of sheers in sea colors that Margo had chosen. He sighed, shoved back the comforter and sat on the edge of the bed, head throbbing, mouth dry and stinking like an empty wine barrel somebody’d taken a piss in. He looked around. Everything reminded him of Margo. She’d decorated their entire Lincoln Square loft. Dishes, drapes, linens, works of art, contemporary furniture—including the bed he lay in—it all woke her scent, her taste, the wild beating of her heart against him when they climaxed together. She liked to wake slowly, lazily, like sipping the morning through a haze of blue the way she used to sip mint julep on her Granddaddy’s porch. She had always been the romantic. He’d always been practical. Now she was gone.
He made a mental note to hire a decorator and give him orders to start with the bedroom. Sheers in bright yellows and blinding white. Something to suit his Coke-bottle-in-the-shit-can style of wakeup calls. Manhattan sunshine blasting through the windows the way the city’s lights gave the night sky no peace. Maybe white flokati rugs, too. Or white shag leather. He’d seen it advertised somewhere. Vanity Fair, maybe. He padded to his bathroom and started the coffeemaker. That had been his one exception to Margo’s Rules. He said he’d be damned if he was going to hike to the kitchen to make morning coffee, and ordered a mini-kitchen installed in the bathroom: coffeemaker, mini-micro, tiny fridge.
Note that in the beginning two paragraphs of this short story we get a good view of the situation and the setting: Mike lives in a Lincoln Square loft in Manhattan, and his wife is no longer there. The setting and the impression of luxury are expressed in fewer words that one would use in a novel. This is just a quick look into the importance of establishing setting in your writing. Check Amazon for more books on the subject, and Write On!