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How to Write an Essay on Settings

by Kori Morgan, studioD

Whether it's an alien planet or a spooky castle on a hill, setting often plays an important role in establishing meaning in stories. An analysis of setting focuses on the role location plays in a story, such as creating mood, developing characters or serving as a symbol. You can write an effective essay on literary setting by considering the specific ways the location influences the story and using clear examples with textual evidence.

Mood and Symbolism

Determine the role setting plays in the work. Often, setting creates the story's mood, or atmosphere. In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," Flannery O'Connor establishes an eerie mood of anticipation as the characters travel an isolated Georgia highway where a serial killer roams free. Setting can also be symbolic of a particular idea within the story. The small town in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," where the townspeople sacrifice one person each year to ensure a good harvest, is symbolic of their adherence to tradition and resistance to change.

Setting and Character

You can also write about how setting affects character. In Jack London's "To Build a Fire," the subzero conditions of the Yukon advance the story by forcing him to adapt to survive. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," the contrasting neighborhoods of East Egg and West Egg create the novel's social class dichotomy. Setting can also serve as a story's antagonist. In Kathryn Stockett's "The Help," Jackson, Mississippi is the antagonist, as its rigid attitudes toward race stand in the way of protagonist Skeeter's goal of writing a book about the town's African-American maids.


Your thesis should clearly and specifically state the setting's role in the work and how it is established. To determine this, go back through the story and underline specific passages where the setting establishes mood, symbolism or character. Take the most important three details and formulate your thesis. A sample thesis might read, "The setting of 'The Lottery' symbolizes society's tendency to cling to tradition through the descriptions in the opening, the interactions of the townspeople and the fact that it is the story's only setting."

Essay Development

Your essay's body paragraphs should include topic sentences followed by an explanation of the point with textual evidence. If you were writing about "The Lottery," you might quote the details in the first paragraph for your point of how the opening introduces the setting. Then you might step back and discuss the significance of the details, tying your point back to the thesis. For example, Jackson's description of the town square enhances the setting's symbolism because it is relatively generic. It could be any small town, just as the rigid thinking of tradition can belong to any community.


The concluding paragraph reviews the elements of setting you've discussed and briefly restates how they relate to your thesis. A good conclusion doesn't merely summarize the essay but instead wraps it up in a way that gives unity to the piece and introduces something new for readers to consider. For example, the conclusion of your "Lottery" essay might discuss how even though the consequences of opposing tradition aren't always life-threatening, it is still easy to cling to certain ideas in a way that alienates people who oppose them.

About the Author

Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.

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