One of the best tools in a writer’s arsenal is setting. Setting is so much more than where the story takes place.
How come? Why should we waste so much time on where the story takes place? It’s just their home, their city, their farm, their childhood home. Right?
Setting is more important than just for visualization (which is huge in itself. Try getting immersed in a book where you feel like you’re floating in air with nothingness). Setting, to me and many other writers, is classified as character.
What is setting?
Setting consists of a number of factors. Weather, place, mood, time, season, and the characters. The characters react to all factors of setting. My main character would not act the same if the place of time happened three hundred years before the twenty first century. Everything would be different. Winter would cause different challenges than Summer. It would incite a different mood. A snow storm would incite a different mood than a hurricane would. The dangers would be different. Characters would react differently to those dangers. Even something as simple as night and day is important.
Setting used as theme.
Most stories have themes. Most of those most have a few. The last thing we want to do is hit the reader over the head with moral speeches or writer interference (we’ve all done it in that first draft. We preach.) Setting is another way to hit themes subtly.
Let’s take a look at an example.
In my WIP, one of the themes is prejudice, incited by fear. One way I show this is through action. There’s a scene where groups gather to celebrate a peace treaty between two different races that share Earth (werewolves and humans). Many don’t agree with the peace treaty, as both sides are still reeling from the bloody 5-year war that ended in a cease-fire. Humans hate werewolves because they don’t understand them. They have no tolerance for things they don’t understand. A sort of riot ensues, kicking off the key event for the story. Bam. Action.
Let’s break it down a bit more. In this scene, it takes place in the MC’s home town. It’s an old town, complete with a historical section. This is a prideful town. It’s also the center seat of the county. It’s not huge, but big enough. Advanced enough. The feelings are mixed because the openness of people’s minds are mixed. This is not a town that consists of farmers who never leave their farms (forgive the blanket generality).
As stated, setting also consists of weather and mood. When the scene first opens, our MC takes note of the wind kicking up. There’s a storm brewing on the other side of the mountain. She dislikes storms with a fierceness, but it’s not clear yet whether this storm will reach the celebrations happening here. It’s foreshadowing (which is another post for another time.) That foreshadowing mixed with her fear of storms invokes feelings. Uncertainty. Will the storm reach them and rain on their parade? Anxiety. We’re all afraid of something and we empathize with the MC.
You miss the opportunity to invoke memory when you don’t use setting. Invoking memory takes the reader deeper into your story through their own feelings. It creates empathy, it creates that connection. They are invested because they understand.
Less subtle is another scene in the opening of the second act of my WIP. My point of this scene is to move Plot B forward, but I’d miss that opportunity to increase theme through setting if I’d chosen just anywhere for my MC to go.
Instead of the mixing pot of her home town where there is more tolerance, she travels to a Native American Reservation to meet with some people, one who happens to be a known werewolf. When they arrive, they find said werewolf cleaning off graffiti from the side of his trailer. It’s a brief conversation about where this graffiti came from, because here the intolerance is as known as the werewolf. Here is a superstitious town full of fear. Here is theme through setting in a subtle way.
This scene also sets up a later scene where MC returns to the Reservation to help the werewolf, whose family member was murdered by an unknown person. Someone who lives on the Reservation? Possibly. Possibly it’s not as “simple” as that.
Setting as mood.
Depending on mood, one could see the left picture as a haunted house, and one could see the right as the same house, only what it could be with a little TLC.
No matter what genre you’re writing, the setting of your story is another way to portray mood. You don’t want to spend a paragraph describing the smell of a robust brew and the new cinnamon bun in a coffee shop if the story is of the horror genre (unless that’s important to the “sanity” of your murderer or something like that. Cinnamon makes me unhappy, too, when it’s combined with apple and spice.)
Don’t set the wrong mood with your setting by accident. Details matter, but they must be true to the type of story you’re writing. The way your character reacts to the setting is just as important as the details. A man who just lost his family will notice different things compared to someone who just was promoted to her dream job.
A lot of writers forget that they have five senses (6, depending on the type of story you’re writing) and largely depend on sight and hearing. What about touch, smell, and taste?
In one of the opening scenes in my WIP, my MC has never experienced fireworks, so when she smells that powder, the charcoal, and sulfur, it excites her. We, as readers, are taken back to our own experiences watching the fireworks. We feel the explosions in our chest, we smell the same thing she’s smelling. We’re right with her seeing those colorful bombs going off against the night sky. We’re tasting the food from vendors, remembering the joy of spending time with loved ones, the awe of the beauty of the entire moment.
Then, just as quickly as real life, she’s brought back to the current state of affairs as thunder claps. There’s arguing not far from her. The awe of the moment fades away as another clap of thunder is felt in her bones. Lightening strikes the sky, adding to the color against the black. Do you smell the rain? Feel the charge in the air? Are you thinking about your own experiences with powerful storms? Do you have that same rude awakening as she’s feeling now?
That is mood.
The moral of the setting story.
Don’t overlook something as powerful as setting. Use it. Spend time thinking about it. Develop it as you would develop any other main character in your story.
What are some of your favorite settings in stories, including your own works?
Stay tuned for characters part 2!