Which story setting to use? Backdrop vs. integral

All stories contain a setting – a time and a place in which the plot occurs – but not all settings are all that important to a story.

Sometimes a story occurs against a generic background, such as a modern city in modern times. This is called a backdrop setting. The location could be either Los Angeles or New York, the year could be now or a couple of years ago. All that’s vital for the reader to know is that the story occurs in a modern city. The cultural and historical events of the setting – who’s president, which war we’re nationally engaged in, the popular songs the characters listen to – generally are not provided because they’re irrelevant.

In contrast, some settings affect the plot, characters and theme of the story. This is an integral setting. The story’s location and/or time period (but not necessarily both) “restrain” the story by placing boundaries on what can occur. For example, a story set in the 1950s requires that female characters act and behave differently than they do now, as the sexual revolution has yet to occur for them. Such restrictions, however, can help writers make statements about the present by guiding the story’s actions and characters. Generally, genre stories – particularly science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction – utilize integral settings. When done well, such settings (like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth or Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets in the 23rd-24th centuries) can carry a power of their own that fascinates readers.

Which type of setting you use depends on how specific you get with the place and time to make the work. If “corporate office building” is satisfactory without knowing what products or services the company provides, you’ve got a backdrop setting. If the fact that the company sells clothing for hip urbanites is vital to the development of a character or the action – for example, the company strongly encourages its employees to wear its own line of clothing but one worker prefers to don decidedly unhip apparel, setting her apart from the others – then you’re using an integral setting.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.