Setting is not simple backdrop, like a green screen on which a film is shot. Setting in fiction plays an important role in plot and characterization. Whether you write sci-fi, historicals, or modern fiction, your setting can make or break your story. So, what are some of the keys to a well-drawn fictional world?
Four Major Mistakes with Setting
Setting is frequently considered the easiest and most fun part of writing. A writer seems happiest when describing rooms, clothing, smells in the air, the look of the lights, the weather. This focus makes sense, since we’ve spent a lot of our lives deciphering objects and their meanings. As fiction writers, we’re focused on the close-in vision of things. Big-concept people write essays. Fiction writers know that it says a lot when the curtains are torn versus curtains festooned with gold thread.
But I’m finding that there are at least four major mistakes with setting. Many writers:
- Over-do it with too much explanation and description, getting lost in the wallpaper and descriptions of the light.
- Make it inconsistent with theme or the characterization
- Leave it too shallow by describing just the house. For all the time spent on descriptions of rooms, not enough time is spent on the geologic, geographic and structural underpinnings of the fictional world -- the rivers, bridges, tides, and swamps etc. We rarely take the time to step back and look at the larger landscape.
- Most frequently however, we waste it. When it’s written as if you’re just painting a picture, you’re wasting the setting.
What Is a Setting That Works?
Setting is a mirror of the character: imagine a character who is immaculate in his dress but has a messy room (denoting someone who considers public appearance important while more genuinely being a slob), or an old man who lives in a basement hovel, invited into a ridiculously splendid mansion. Setting denotes social status and class background, as well as character attributes such as thrift, the tendency to hoard, forgetful disorganization, etc. For example: “On the last street in the village, down past where the earth bridge had caved in, Rebecca made her home amid the stubborn roots of an old bush.” What does this tell us about Rebecca’s class standing? Her inclusion in the community? How close to the edge she is living? How prosperous is a town with a caved-in earth bridge?
But most importantly, and most frequently overlooked, is the fact that setting can drive plot.
Six key ways that setting drives plot:
- Provides congregation and diversity
- Controls the movement of characters
- Hightens tension
- Establishes authority
- Challenges the protagonist in his/her quest
- Assist in disturbing the status quo
Let’s take each of those in turn:
1. Provide congregation and diversity: a setting can orchestrate the meeting of people who wouldn’t ordinarily congregate. Think of the crossroads where there is the unexpected arrival of travelers with no other connection. Or, think of the day care center where people from different classes, racial groups, age groups in different parts of town all meet in the same place. What about the barbershop, the post office, the communal garden? And then of course there is the neighborhood bar, frequently described in stories and film because characters emote heavily, and then leave.
2. Controls movement of characters: setting allows you to control the ebb and flow of action. If your story is set on a ship, for instance, there’s no way your character can simply walk away from difficulty. Subway cars that break down trap a small number of people together with no way out. Settings also present obstacles that keep groups of characters separate, simplifying your work. People in the village won’t see the mountain folk until the summer when the pass is open. Every time you have a geographic or physical barrier between characters, your plot is easier to manage than when everyone has total access to everyone else all the time. A physical barrier answers the questions: “Why didn’t she just leave? Why didn’t they know?” Physical boundaries can act as bottlenecks, which allows you to control their meetings, put them into conflict, or tie all the ends together (e.g. the storm abates, the supply ship arrives etc.)
3. Heightens tension: setting increases tension by adding deadlines to the completion of the hero/heroine’s journey. For example, the wormhole closes on Tuesday and the captives must extricate themselves in time; the tide goes out early in the morning and your characters must be on the ship or lose their chance at starting over in the New World. Setting can help you answer the key question in any story: “Why now?”
4. Establishes authority: setting can allow a single character or group of characters to have information that they can leverage. Think of the boy in the belfry and what he can see that no one else can. What about the shepherdess on the hill above town? Setting can also designate special routes for special people such as hidden caves, secret passageways, the hole in the wall gang protected by the obscure entrance to their hideout. And the sudden access to information or authority, created by a change in the setting, can be a powerful element in a story. Imagine a hole that is suddenly created in the floor of the maid’s room that allows her to hear secret conversations in the master bedroom below.
5. Challenges the protagonist: setting can also act as the goal for the protagonist’s journey. There was a reason that the ring had to be thrown into the fire of Mordor instead of any other fire. There’s a reason that apocalyptic stories frequently involve a journey to the radio station, or the last boat off the mainland. Setting can also create dependencies between characters that wouldn’t be there otherwise. For example, only Gollum knew the way through the Swamp of the Dead which made the Hobbits continue to rely on him. And setting is a great way to kill off characters when they have finished serving their purpose.
6. Assists in disturbing the status quo: setting can be an important catalyst that sets the story in motion. Think of the blizzard or the flood that cuts off parts of town and makes unlikely people band together. Think of the train wreck or the storm that sets your characters in previously unknown territory. A drought drives people off the land…and so on.
I was taught that a good story is like a machine: there’s no room for any superfluous cog, screw or washer. Likewise, setting isn’t just “atmosphere” – it has a job to do to move your story forward.
I teach a workshop in The Literary Landscape: Settings That Work Hard for Your Story at The Writing Salon, at the recent Rally of Writers, and elsewhere. Please join me if you can.
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