In this episode, I take a small detour from the usual format to discuss story setting, the place and time where your character gets into and hopefully out of trouble. I offer three exercises to help strengthen your setting and story.
The Write Life’s 100 Best Websites for Writers
I’m pleased to share that Writership has been included in the Write Life’s list of 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2019. I feel honored to be included and hope you’ll check it out and take advantage of the amazing collection of resources they have gathered there.
New series on the Captain’s Blog
Speaking of the website, I’ve begun a new series on the Captain’s Blog that you may want to check out. I focus on scene work here on the podcast, and writing a scene that works is a vital skill. But even if you execute solid scene after solid scene, your story could still leave readers feeling unsatisfied for several possible reasons—and they might not be able to tell you why. To support your writing in 2019, the Captain’s Blog will feature a new weekly series on story-level craft to help you focus on the big picture. Click here to read the first post in the series.
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Wise Words on Setting
Strengthen Your Setting
Whether your story is realistic or complete fantasy, the time you spend focusing on your setting is valuable. Understanding the world around your characters will help you create a stronger story. As a writer you want to transport your reader into your fictional universe from the first word and keep them engaged until the end. The specific details you use to establish setting help ground your readers by giving them a firm context for your characters and their stories.
But your setting is more than a place where characters get into mischief and get out again. It’s easy to skimp on setting when you’re trying to get your story down—and there is nothing wrong with that. One writer told me that he ignores the setting and simply “‘Bob Rosses’ the bushes in later.” Other writers find the spark of their stories in a location, including Diana Gabaldon, whose novel Outlander was inspired by the Scottish Highlands. While writing the early drafts, you want to work quickly and dictate your thoughts before they get away. Obviously your story has to happen somewhere, but you can tackle the finer details when you know who does what to whom.
Once you’ve established that, I recommend turning your attention to the where and when. Today I share some ideas to help you get started.
We often think of place as cities and towns within states or provinces within nations. Whether your setting is based on the real world of completely made up, you’ll want to consider geography, climate, and ecology. Is your setting a savannah or rainforest? Is it rural, suburban, or urban?
Your setting includes geographic areas, but it also contains more specific places where the action takes place, like individual sites (a pond in the middle of the woods), buildings (the family home on Monarch Drive), and rooms (the bedroom within the home). Each place possesses distinct qualities that you can use to create mood, reveal character, and complicate the main conflict.Within the larger, overall setting, individual scenes take place in specific buildings and rooms. Where do your characters live? Where do they work or go to school? Where else does your character go?
Beyond the physical elements of place, there is the social environment. What are the history, politics, culture, and social structure of your place? Is it a democracy, a dictatorship, or something else entirely? Is there political conflict? Is it egalitarian or highly stratified? How do people earn money and feed themselves? What is the predominant faith, or are there many?
One of my clients shared the concept of visible and hidden cultural elements. What we can see might include architecture, language, attire, manners, and social events. Hidden cultural elements include cultural values, beliefs, and assumptions. While we can easily observe the visible elements, the hidden ones are the things that tend to motivate choices and to me are even more interesting. Here’s a great article on the topic.
Your story also unfolds within a certain period of time (for example, the Iron Age or Antebellum Period), but could be narrowed down to a single month of the year. But what difference does it make? Well that depends. What your characters encounter in New York City in February would be different in July. The first Saturday in May in Louisville, Kentucky is different from the fourth Saturday.
Within the time period, you’ll probably want to get more specific. What year is it? What season? What month? This determines clothing worn, activities engaged in, and sometimes what transportation is available. Does your story take place over a long span of time? Or is it just a few days or hours? The many factors to consider include:
Technology: How do people communicate over long distances? (e.g., Letter? Bird? Telegraph? Telephone? Email? Cell phone? Nano phone? Ansible?) What kind of transportation is available? Medical care? Weaponry?
Language and the manner of speaking evolve over time. Some words and jargon belong to specific time periods or places. English is a language that spans the globe, but people use different words, phrases, and spellings differently, and even within the same country. Someone from New Hampshire is unlikely to say, y’all. Wicked can mean evil or immoral in some parts of the country; in others the word conveys excellence.
Social environment: The governmental structure and laws change with time. Manners, mores, customs, and rituals do as well. How do people in your time behave? There is variation among people within a time, but an understanding of the ordinary way of doing things supports the story. Regency romances, for example, recount a wide range of activities of the upper classes with very specific codes of conduct and clothing for each setting—and Regency romance readers will know when you get it right.
When you decide on these elements, you create boundaries around your story. You still have options, but the decisions you make create constraints with rules that help your reader acclimate, whether you’re writing in a realistic or fantastical world.
Effect on Characters
The setting you choose has a big impact on your characters. It can determine the living conditions: a woman living in Sudan will experience vastly different circumstances from a woman living in Scotland.
The time and place a female character inhabits determines whether she may vote, what jobs are available to her, whether she may choose whom she marries, and her chances of surviving childbirth. The setting impacts what she values, believes, and the availability of education. The climate and weather might change the food that’s available, how much there is, and how it is obtained.
Setting contributes to where characters fall on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and thus what they fear and what motivates them. These are also a function of personality, but the lack of basic needs being met (or their fully being met) is likely to change the character’s behavior.
Effect on the Problem
The setting will also affect the problem of your premise. Are you exposing your character to a comfortable or dangerous setting? The central problem looks different in a quiet suburban neighborhood from one in a city located at the base of an active volcano. Time affects what is available to solve the problem. Criminal investigation techniques and tools available today are different from what was available in the time Sherlock Holmes was operating. Travel and a host of other circumstances have changed since September 11, 2001.
Ray Bradbury’s story, “All Summer in a Day,” is set on Venus, where the sun shines only once every seven years. Margot, whose parents moved her to Venus from Earth, has seen and felt the sun. She misses the sun more than anything from her former home. The other children, born on Venus and too young to have seen the sun there, don’t believe Margot’s tales of wonder; they bully her and prevent her from the sun the one day in seven years when she could have. In a world where the sun shines regularly, Margot’s problem simply wouldn’t exist.
The setting can be a full-fledged character in its own right, creating conflict with the protagonist. In Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire,” the cold environment of the Klondike serves as both character and conflict. In a more temperate climate, building a fire could make a person more comfortable, but not necessarily be required to survive the night.
Set the mood
The setting is an easy way to create the mood for your story. Compare these two descriptions from Neil Gaiman in American Gods, and Henry David Thoreau in Walden:
The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.
In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantage of human neighborhood insignificant.
Both passages describe a damp environment: but one is creepy and uncomfortable; the other is fresh, open, and peaceful.
Setting can show contrast between the character and place, but also between different places. Writers can demonstrate changes in characters by showing how they respond in different environments. Consider the way Harry Potter behaves at the home of his Aunt and Uncle on Privet Drive; he lives in a cupboard under the stairs and keeps to himself as much as possible. When he is at Hogwarts, he has close friends and is a gifted athlete and leader.
The Passage of Time
Writers can use a description of setting to convey the passage of time or decay without having to compare it to an earlier time. In this example, from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Pip enters Miss Havisham’s dressing room for the first time.
It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow.
The choices you make create structure, and it’s best to be intentional about it. Of course, let inspiration be your guide, but don’t be afraid to reassess your choices and preferences and find out what they mean in your story. Here are three editorial missions to help you do just that.
Editorial Mission—Strengthen Your Scenes
No matter how certain you are about your setting, be open to exploring what you don’t yet know that can make your story stronger. Here are three exercises to help you with the inquiries.
Everything I know about …
Make a list of the individual settings that appear in your story: like the hero’s office or the villain’s lair. Then spend ten to fifteen minutes writing about each location. Don’t know where to start? Begin with the topic “everything I know about the villain’s lair,” and keep writing without stopping to revise. Your aim is to get to know the parts of your setting you may have overlooked. Then for a twist, try “everything I don’t know about the villain’s lair” to approach the problem from a different angle.
Put your results away for a day or two and then review. Or write on the same topic three days in a row. Any surprises? Did you discover additional details that you can add to your story to make the setting richer, more authentic? Do you have a better understanding of why your main character loves the hand-me-down furniture in the living room of her shabby chic apartment? If your results were lackluster, try writing for a longer period of time. Play music that reminds you of your setting. As much as possible, inhabit the world your characters do and write from that place so what you see in your mind’s eye makes it onto the page.
Save the best parts of your efforts to weave into your story.
Move Your Setting
Imagine that you can scoop up the story from your chosen setting and deposit it in another place and time. For example, if your story takes place in London at the turn of the eighteenth century, move it to the middle ages or to modern Tokyo. Of course it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. You could move your characters from San Diego, California to Portland Oregon. But what if your story were transported to East Germany in November 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall came down, or the US in 2015, before the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges? Consider a variety of times and places.
How would each move affect the events of your story and the lives of your characters? How would it change the stakes involved (both public and private)? Would it change the level of conflict your protagonist encounters? Would it change how reversible the protagonist’s choices are?
If changing the setting doesn’t have a significant impact, think about what you need to add to your setting to make it clear that the time and place add meaning to the story.
Read your manuscript paying particular attention to how you’ve shown the world where your story takes place. Take notes on what you find. Even if you’re not writing a series, keep a list of the decisions you’ve made, the aspects of the world you tend to focus on, and which facets you miss. In part, this is to help you with your present work in progress. But the real impact is long-term. Record your obsessions, the things you keep coming back to, and what you avoid or resist. Self-awareness will help you become a stronger writer.
Images courtesy of getstencil.com and Masson/bigstock.com