The Writer Alley is gearing up to chat about ‘Setting’ for the next two weeks and you guys are in store for a lot of great information. So since you’re going to hear about various different settings within the next several posts, I’m going to chat about ‘setting’ as an overview in your story.
My 15 year old defined setting like this: You have to know the terrain to plan the battle
I LOVE that – because it’s true! The palate of setting influences the rules, decisions, expectations, beliefs, and plot to paint the picture of your story. If you don’t know your setting, it’s difficult to plan your writing strategy.
So…er….what is ‘setting’? Well, briefly, here are three points.
1. Provides a sense of space and time (the bottom-line basics)
2. Provides cultural rules and expectations (the flexible frame)
3. Provides character (the influential core)
A sense of space and time
This first point is about the ‘bottom-line basics’ of setting. It’s the answer to the question Where and When does your story take place? Simply put, this usually sums up our ‘genre’ titles like: Historical, Contemporary, Speculative, Fantasy, Western…etc
In my YA fantasy novel, The Book of Beginnings, I’ve developed an imaginary world. This is the most extreme way to manipulate setting. Much like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, the author creates a ‘story world’ which is different than our own. Nonhuman beings, a brand new space-time continuum, machines or animals unfamiliar to us.
But that’s not all. Even if the setting is in our own world, it guides our choices of vocabulary, dress, references, occupations, and even transportation. Sleepless in Seattle is a contemporary setting. Gone with the Wind is a historical setting. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is mostly a fantasy setting. Our brains develop a certain ‘picture’ of setting when we use these words and it’s from this starting point where we move off to the other setting-points.
Cultural rules and expectations
The place, time, era, and culture in which your character lives (and was raised) is a highly influential part of the setting. To know how this influences your story, you might answer the question So what makes this setting different to your characters' lives? How does it 'frame' their worldviews?
My historical novel, The Thornbearer, is set during The Great War. AlleyCat Amy Simpson’s novels are contemporary romantic suspense. The cultural expectations of my heroine are extremely different than the cultural expectations of hers. Does this influence the story? You bet!! My heroine’s ‘secret’ is a BIG deal in 1916 – a social and moral debauchery. In the contemporary world, it’s still a big deal, but it doesn’t darken other people’s opinion of the main character like it does in Edwardian England.
My favorite point of setting and the most influential!
This is where the setting takes on a life of its own. In my Contemporary Romantic Comedy, the Blue Ridge Mountains becomes a pulse in the workings, emotions, and relationship opportunities for my characters. The weather and terrain influence the character’s lives, choices, and even the way the talk :-)
Some authors use one piece of setting to hold special meaning. I think Nicolas Spark does this a lot. For example, the church in which a heroine’s mom and dad were married holds special significance for her and provides ‘answers’ in her hard times. Therefore, there might be several scenes when she is particularly ‘broken’ in which she MUST visit that particular church to feel her parents near her, even though they are dead.
In my historical, the Lusitania provides a setting which is as alive as the sea on which it floats – thrusting my characters into fighting against it to survive. World War 1 also provides this opportunity, shaping the attitude of individuals, decision which wouldn’t otherwise have to be made, and moving the story forward with the sheer force of its presence.
So – have you ever thought about setting in this way? How does setting work in your stories?