Depending on the type of story you write, the setting may be little more than an afterthought, an arbitrary decision made simply because your characters have to live somewhere. In the best of stories, however, setting is an inherent key in bringing to life not just the scenery but the characters themselves. As such, it isn’t something we can afford to overlook. Your answers to the following questions may show you the weak points in your setting construction and help you use it to its full potential.
1. Is your setting inherent to your story?
In some stories, the setting is so important that to change it would mean changing the entire plot. In Empire of the Sun, J.G. Ballard’s novelization of his boyhood in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, the setting, first in Shanghai, and then in the civilian prisoner camp, cannot possibly be separated from the story itself. It’s the power of the unique setting and the vivid word pictures in which Ballard paints it that make this book breathe. In contrast, the sequel The Kindness of Women, which takes place when the author/hero is a grown man living in England, fails to share the original’s strong sense of place—and as a result never comes close to the same power.
2. How does your character view his setting?
In her book Write Away, bestselling mystery author Elizabeth George points out that “through a character’s environment, you show who he is.” Fellow mystery author Michael Connelly, in an interview with Jeff Ayers, concurred:
You are always looking for ways to deliver character to your reader. One of the most important and ready ways of doing that is through the character’s interaction with his or her city…. Because he is really contemplating himself.3. Are your characters experiencing the setting with all their senses?
Utilize all five of your character’s senses to bring the setting to life. Random details of description, no matter how beautifully penned, don’t matter to the story unless they are filtered through the character’s individual experience. The heat of a summer day doesn’t matter until the character is the one feeling it. The sound of the telephone ringing only makes a difference if the character hears it. The whisper of jasmine in the air is pointless unless it has meaning for the character who smells it.
4. Does your setting affect the mood?
Setting, more than any other facet of the story, allows us the most flexibility for creating mood and pacing. The ominous thunderheads gathering above the protagonist’s cornfield, the forbidding chill of the abandoned shack on the side of the road, the stuffy air inside a funeral home—all these bits of setting serve to inform the reader of the mood you’re trying to strike.
Choose your settings carefully. Don’t settle for the obvious answers. Look beyond clichés and examine the needs of your story to find the most appropriate setting. Then juice it for every drop of usefulness. If you can bring the setting to life as a character in its own right, you’ll be that much closer to creating a story your readers will never forget.
Related Posts: One Thing the Movies Can Teach You About Setting
5 Ways to Pace Your Story
Details: Bringing Fiction to Life
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Story by K.M. Weiland