This is how the conversation in my head went as I sat reading Setting by Bickham over my holiday break: Chapter 1- Story setting is important. Chapter 5- Super-duper important. End of Book- Crap, I’ve got to re-examine everything…
Setting: the surroundings or environment of anything.
For a book this can be anything from a romantic Arabian getaway, to the one room your locked in during a horror story, to a peaceful valley, or a spacecraft light-years from here.
How did you decide your story’s setting?
- Is it a place you regularly visit?
- Is it a place you wished you visited?
- Is it currently popular in other media?
- Did your genre dictate it?
- Did your character dictate it?
- Did it take shape as you wrote?
- Did it jump into your mind?
What I’m getting at here is did you think about it? I mean seriously sit down and think it through: pros and cons, lists, options, research, the whole gambit? Most writers don’t or select something quickly to get their story on the paper.
Like I hinted at in one my last post is that setting can and does deeply affect your story in so many ways, for example:
- Effect on Character: Your character’s upbringing, tastes, exposures will all change depending on their physical place but also the time frame. You wouldn’t expect a Victorian era girl to speak computer lingo. Just like a western would be weird if the hero didn’t know how to load his pistol.
- Effect on Plot: Changes in weather, changes in construction, changes in planetary movement, changes in the stock market, nearly anything in your setting can be used to make your character’s life sing or sink.
- Effect on Theme: The old house the kids break into isn’t all that spooky with the first cobweb but by the 10th one we are feeling things are haunted and the nice adventure we thought we’d picked up doesn’t seem so friendly anymore. Poe’s A Tell Tale Heart comes to mind, the beating heart is part of the setting that doesn’t change but becomes more pronounced as the character’s attitude toward it changes.
- Effect on Dialogue: Where your story is set in time and space will change how people talk. If you’re in the Southern US your characters will speak and say different things from the Midwest or New York. The words used are different between medieval times and space times.
Or have you considered that the setting can be a character itself or take on character like attributes? Consider the movie Twister, where the storm itself became like a character chasing and hurting the other characters. Or the mountain in Tolkien’s Hobbit as it took on gloom, death, and despair with each chapter that went by.
Sure you can make almost anything work and maybe the conflict between the characters and their setting is what drives your story, that’s all great. But what I don’t want you to do is pick something okay when you could’ve picked something epic.
So think about the prototype that your genre represents. If I say medical thriller whatever just popped into your mind is probably the base-line (hello Grey’s Anatomy). No writer wants to meet just the base, we want to exceed it. We want our medical thriller to be better than the rest of them.
Figure out what the basic level for your genre is and twist it, use your setting to make it different than the rest of them. Here’s a quick genre list I found.
Why do most medical thrillers take place in a big city with lots of technology and plenty of staff? It doesn’t have to. Why are most the doctor’s white upper-class males? Not all of them are. Make your medical thriller’s setting different, set it in a refuge camp in Hattie run by an Asian American, I’m sure you can come up with something even better.
What unique settings have you come up with to defy your genre?