Use Setting To Influence Characters And Plot and Thereby Enrich Your Story or Novel
Answer This Question
Are you getting the most from your settings when you write a short story or novel? Confused by what I am asking?
I recently saw a movie titled “Gravity” with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It is about the trials and tribulations of two astronauts, and then one astronaut, during a space voyage. If you have seen that movie you will realize immediately how important the setting is to that movie. The setting is everything in that movie, and it most definitely influences everything the characters are doing and also drives the plot forward.
“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Read the first chapter and then contemplate how the setting of that windblown, desolate place affects the characters and the plot. I would go so far as to say that the setting in the first few chapters is the main character.
Here is what I have noticed after sixty years of reading: far too many writers ignore the importance of setting. They concentrate on the plot. They concentrate on the characters. They concentrate of pacing and rhythm, but often times they forget setting to the detriment of their story.
Consider that setting is where your readers are going to live for the life of your story. How can you make your reader feel welcome in your setting? If you can answer that question then you will have brought life to your story and thereby made it an enjoyable read.
What follows are questions I want you to ask yourself about the setting in your story or novel. By answering these questions you will unleash potential and make your story all that it can be.
WHAT IS THE PRINCIPLE SETTING OF YOUR STORY?
Is there one particular setting in your story that best reflects the story? Is it nature? A busy city? One room? How does that setting affect your characters? How does it affect the plot?
I am willing to bet that some of you out there cannot answer this question. I would bet that simply because I have some earlier short stories of mine that do not have a central setting, certainly not one that affects the characters in any way, shape or form. Guess I have some re-writing to do, don’t I?
COULD YOUR STORY HAVE HAPPENED IN A DIFFERENT SETTING?
This calls for some critical self-analysis on your part. If you have a story or novel, and you could easily shift it to a different setting, then setting is not terribly important to your story or novel.
Obviously, if you are writing historical fiction, your setting is limited to a particular time, and that time will dictate the “look” of your setting. However, if you are writing a story about modern times, what is it about your setting that makes it unique and important to the story?
But what, you say, if your story takes place in someone’s home? What is unique about a home? And I would say are you serious? What is unique about the home you live in right now? What are the sights, the sounds, the smells, the textures and the tastes of your home? The five senses often are a wonderful way of making a setting unique. Give it a try!
WHERE ARE YOUR CHARACTERS FROM?
And how do those places affect your characters? Someone brought up in the Bible Belt to strict Baptist parents will definitely be affected by living in that environment. Someone brought up in a small community in Alaska will be affected in a completely different manner.
Remember that we want our characters to seem real to our readers; the more depth you can give them the better, and where they were raised is a valid question when shaping your characters.
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HOW DO YOUR CHARACTERS RELATE TO THE SETTING?
Are your characters comfortable in their setting, or is the setting a struggle for them? What if your character lived in an abusive home? What if the environment is toxic? What if your character is lost in the wilderness?
Whether your setting is adversarial or comfortable, your characters are definitely affected by it, and this adds to the depth of your story if you capitalize on it.
CAN THE SETTING FUNCTION LIKE A CHARACTER?
Well of course it can. How about horror books where the story takes place in a haunted house? The house….the setting….is definitely one of the characters in the book. The Amityville Horror??? Hello???
Novels that take place in nature….Shipwrecked for instance….in cases like that, to ignore the setting would be to ignore a key element in the book.
DOES THE SETTING AFFECT THE TONE OF THE STORY?
Think about this question for a moment. Does the setting affect the tone? Well it can for certain.
One of my favorite mystery writers is James Lee Burke. All of his Dave Robicheaux books are set in the bayous of Louisiana, and you better believe the setting affects the mood.
Or let’s think of it another way: a murder mystery set in a peaceful Vermont village will have a different tone than a murder mystery set in Los Angeles.
DOES YOUR SETTING RELATE WELL TO THE THEME?
I will refer you to “To Kill A Mockingbird” to illustrate this point. The story is located in a sleep Southern town during the Great Depression; a setting of struggle, pride, humanness and racial prejudice. There is an oppressive tone to the setting of that town, and there is an oppressive tone to the way people relate to each other. It is beautifully written from the vantage point of tone and setting.
IS YOUR SETTING UNIQUE?
Why bother writing a story or novel if there is not something unique about it? I have read stories where the author hurried through the descriptions like they were a bother to them, and what a shame that is.
Make your settings unique. Give them a personality. Give them life. Give them distinguishing features that make them come alive. Again, referring to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” I felt like I had lived in Maycomb by the time I finished reading about that sleepy, dusty down. That, my friends, is the reason why that book is a classic in literature.
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Do You Now Have Enough to Think About?
And you thought writing was just a simple matter! Hahahahaha! It takes a lot of work my friends to write a QUALITY short story or novel. Writing a story does not require talent; writing a very good story does.
And where do you suppose writing talent comes from? Maybe, just maybe, some people are born with certain DNA that gives them an advantage in writing. I’m not convinced of that but I’m willing to entertain the possibility. Most good writers are good writers because they work to improve their craft, and that work includes paying attention to setting.
I have said it before and I’ll say it many times in the future: there are no shortcuts to becoming a good writer. One must work to improve. If that doesn’t interest you then have a great day and I wish you happiness.
If, however, you are interested in stretching your own personal limits, and if you are interested in finding out just how good you can be, then you need to do the little things that separate the very good writers from the mediocre.
And by doing those things, you will begin to spread your wings and fly.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”