Imagine The Shining taking place in a shopping mall. Or the movie Se7en set in sunny Florida. It just wouldn’t work. The setting of a story plays a vital part in the success of these stories, and it should in your stories, as well.
Setting does more than provide the backdrop for your characters. It opens certain possibilities for your story and closes down others. It helps establish the tone of the story and often supplies support for the theme. Often, setting can function as a character in the context of your story.
Setting is of supreme importance in writing a stellar story.
What is setting?
The setting of your story goes beyond place. It encompasses factors such as historical background, culture, socio-economic environment, and atmosphere. It influences character language, writing style, type of story, and overall ambience. All of these elements should work in harmony with the plot, characters, and theme of your story.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s look at one of my all-time favorite books, Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. The story is a romantic suspense in a gothic setting, the language lush and dreamy with leisurely cadences:
“Last night, I dreamt I went to Maderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me…”
Do you see how the author’s style matches the setting? The perfect pairing contributes to the success of this enduring classic. Let’s contrast that with the opening from Thomas Harris’s The Silence of The Lambs:
“Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth. Clarice Starling reached it flushed after a fast walk from Hogan’s Alley on the firing range. She had grass in her hair and grass stains on her FBI Academy windbreaker from diving to the ground under fire in an arrest problem on the range.”
The setting and language are different here but nicely matched to each other, laying the groundwork for the kind of story Harris is getting ready to tell.
Setting is integral to story, so take care to choose a setting that will best complement what you want to communicate to your reader.
What can setting do for me?
I cannot enumerate all the perks that come from selecting an appropriate setting, but I can touch on some of them.
1. Setting helps determine your story parameters
When you choose a setting, you put limits on your story—and that can be a good thing. It helps in your decision-making process, presenting an array of options applicable to your setting, and eliminating others from the pool, letting you focus on what works best.
For example, Andy Weir set his story The Martian on Mars. That limited his choices of plot events. Having Mark Watney meet the woman of his dreams on the red planet was not on the table, and would have shifted the story off its axis and made it into something else entirely.
2. Setting helps unify story elements
Setting contributes a lot to unity in a story, and much of it happens on a subconscious level. But here’s a handy technique you can make conscious use of to bind the moving pieces of your story into a coherent whole: Make repeated references to a particular element.
If you work it right, this can also be a powerful way to express theme, as discussed in the next section.
For example, if my story was set in a town next to a roaring river and my theme touched on the frantic nature of time rushing on, I could use that river as a central element. I’d spend a paragraph or two, early in the story, describing the river with specific sensory detail, making sure readers understand how fast and loud and unrelenting the river is, etc.
Then, use the river again and again as a unifying symbol. Feature the river in a newspaper article a character reads; have another character tell how her brother died there. Have two characters agree to meet there. Look for opportunities to mention or incorporate the river, and thus it becomes the spinal cord of your story, unifying the outlying elements.
3. Setting helps communicate theme
Beyond providing a consistent framework and tying together plot elements, setting can help express theme.
For instance, my new thriller, Steadman’s Blind, is a wild ride told from four different viewpoints and changing trajectories, but the setting—the aftermath of a volcanic eruption—unifies the various elements and highlights theme.
As the ash in the air thickens, so does the plot and the desperation of the characters. Toward the end, when the wind shifts, clearing the sky, it is an omen of hope.
4. Setting can help define your character
If you show your character as a product of his environment, whatever you do to develop your setting reflects on your character as well. This is a great way to convey important aspects of your character without spoon-feeding them to your reader.
By contrast, you can use setting in another way, placing your character in a setting completely opposite to his nature. A fish-out-of-water scenario creates instant tension and can lead to a compelling story.
5. Setting can advance plot
Change in a setting can force your characters to act, advancing the plot. As a bonus, such changes will increase the tension level, too.
A dam breaks; a town floods. A prosperous business gets bought out and people lose their jobs. A family finally builds their dream home where their children can safely play and the state builds a maximum-security prison next door.
You get the idea. Change your setting, advance your plot.
And the change doesn’t have to be something tangible—it could simply be a change in perspective.
For example, Martha appreciates her husband. He never complains that she spends her days hanging out in coffee shops with friends. He’s undemanding about her cooking and housework. He tolerates her draping pantyhose over the bathroom shower and taking up all the counter space for her cosmetics.
And then Martha pulls a long, blonde hair off her husband’s sock while doing laundry and her perspective changes. His laissez-faire attitude now suggests he’s got other interests. Martha has to do something about it.
6. Researching setting can spark ideas
In most instances, you’ll need to do at least a little research to flesh out the setting of your story. Doing this often opens up new possibilities and suggests plot events you hadn’t considered. Research has many times led me to a treasure trove of ideas and fabulous details to add verisimilitude to the story.
The caveat is that you can get carried away. Don’t overspend your time on research, and don’t overburden your story with irrelevant details.
A few final thoughts on setting
I used to work for our public library system, and I was trained to help readers find just the kind of book they’re looking for. One thing I learned is that many readers are highly sensitive to setting, wanting books with a particular type. Setting holds great appeal for a lot of hungry readers, so think about that when choosing the setting for your next story.
Pay more attention as you watch and read, looking for ways the setting has influenced the story. For an interesting look at how setting was used in some of Hollywood’s biggest films, check out this article.
Now that you know how to use setting to strengthen your story, go forth and put this power to work in your writing!
Are you aware of setting in the stories you read? How about the stories you write? Tell us about it in the comments.
There’s little point in fixing on the right setting for your story if you don’t pull your readers into that setting so they can experience it along with your characters. Remember item #2 above? Before you make repeated references to the significant element, you have to describe it such that your readers will understand it’s important.
Choose from the options provided and write one or two paragraphs of description, using sensory detail that shows the emotions and opinions of the viewpoint character. Remember, every word should come through that character and be colored by their attitudes and preferences.
- Clock tower in the town square
- Pool at the neighborhood gym
- Lightning-charred tree at the edge of town
- Rocky ridge on nearby mountain
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re done, think about ways you could incorporate this image into your story, using it to unify and express theme. Post your work in the comments, and be sure to provide feedback for your fellow writers!