A few years ago, when Sex and the City: The Movie came out, many reviews referenced New York City as the “fifth character”—an element of the storyline that was just as important as Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda.
When writing stories—especially character-driven ones—we focus on the protagonist, the main characters and secondary characters, their backgrounds and motivations. We focus on conflict, what the characters want and what stands in the way.
But sometimes that means we forget to write about the setting, a crucial part of creating a strong story.
The Power of Place
Why is the setting so important?
Here are three ways the setting plays a role in a story:
1. It reveals character.
Think about your protagonist’s daily routine, his favorite places to go, his home and workplace. These spaces show what he likes to do and what influences his life. How a character responds to his surroundings also reveals more about who he is. Consider how he may feel or act at a rock concert… at the library… at a busy coffee shop.
2. It contributes to the plot.
The characters in a story physically move to different locations in order to interact with other characters or take action. Perhaps your protagonist goes to her friend’s house and reveals a huge secret. Or perhaps she travels back to her hometown and runs into her high school sweetheart.
3. It creates conflict.
The setting adds to the conflict when it puts a character in danger or in an uncomfortable position. Imagine a stalled car on a long dirt road, a packed train in the middle of a city, or a pop-up thunderstorm while picnicking in a park. Any of these settings have the power to produce conflict and move the story forward.
Does setting play a role in your writing? How does it reveal character or affect the plot?
Consider a specific setting—a place and time. It could be an indoor or outdoor space; house or building; city or country town; mountains or beach; pleasant weather or stormy; winter or summer; day or night; past, present or future.
Write for fifteen minutes about a scene that features this setting. Be sure the setting plays a role by revealing character, contributing to the plot, or creating conflict.
When you’re finished, please share your practice in the comments section.