When writing a story the first elements to pop into a writer’s mind are: plot, character, motivation, theme and audience. Very few realize that there’s on key element which can have many uses, for the better or worse of the story and characters.
A setting is more than just where a story takes place. It can be a sanctuary or a tartarus, or neutral territory for the character(s). Setting can be an obstacle or a character itself with its own unique fit to the story.
Harry Potter would have turned out differently if Hogwarts was a decrepit castle. Or if the school was a camouflaged building in London. Frodo and Sam would have faced different challenges if their journey to Mordor went through a desert instead of a swamp.
For better stories, and better settings, think of each setting like a character. Ask it tough questions. Why is it ramshackle? Why not well kept? Why medieval and not modern? Why does this/these characters come here? What does the setting do for each one or the story itself?
A setting will do more for a character who knows the place than a character who doesn’t. If all characters are strangers to the setting this it’s neutral territory, but the setting itself can stile a friend or enemy. Like a mama dragon who’s annoyed at her two babies fighting on her back. She could fall back asleep and her natural movement help or hinder different chicks. Or she turns so they fall off, or she could wake up and roar at them.
A jungle setting will give different obstacles and assists than the arctic. A modern, well-kept house will provide differently than an old abandoned house. There will be different ups and downs if the characters are at the setting in spring than if autumn.
Ask the hard questions and the setting will be just as alive, important and integral as the characters.