As writers, we often underestimate the power of setting. Who didn’t want to visit the Hundred-Acre Wood? How much of our Bilbo-love is wrapped up in Hobbiton, my precious? And whatever you might think of the Twilight series, the ho-hum town of Forks became a little more interesting because it was the perfect home for Meyer’s vampires. In every genre, the right setting, well-written, is an invaluable piece of the falling-in-love-with-a-book puzzle. To explore this a bit more, I’m introducing a series on Creating Unforgettable Settings. Today’s tip:
CHOOSING THE RIGHT SETTING
In college I had a button that said Waiting for Mr. ‘He’ll Do’. I pinned it to my bedroom bulletin board because, despite the chuckles it gave me, I was a little embarrassed to wear it. (enter Non-Lawyer Spokesperson stating that my husband is babe-a-licious and in no way did I settle when I picked him). When it comes to writing, we jump through all kinds of hoops to draw our characters perfectly, to make sure our plotlines are flawless with no holes or inconsistencies. The setting, on the other hand, is often an afterthought. No more Mr. He’ll Do, people. Here are some tips for strengthening your story by choosing just the right setting.1. First of all, if the story really could take place anywhere, don’t over-think it. Keep it simple, and go with a general location that works. However, there should be places within that setting that are important to the character. Melinda’s janitorial closet in Speak. Or the forest outside District 12 for Katniss in The Hunger Games. Those sacred places should reveal something about the hero: her desires or fears, her true character, her Achilles’ heel. When individualizing your setting so it reflects upon your characters, ask yourself these questions: Which specific part of the setting is most important to them? Why? What should that area reveal about them? Build your setting around the characters and their conflict and you’ll create a place that readers will want to re-visit.
2. Make sure your setting comes fully-stocked with challenges, because…let’s be honest: the perfect world actually sounds pretty boring. Characters need problems to overcome, and the setting is a natural vehicle for conflict. Look at Middle Earth. Black, chasm-ridden mines. Midge-filled marshes. The Paths of the Dead. When deciding on a setting, choose one that makes sense for your characters but one that also makes things difficult in some way—specifically difficult for your hero, if possible. Is he afraid of heights? Throw some skyscrapers or narrow mountain passes in there. Does he suffer from seasonal allergies? Set the story in spring. Specifically design your setting to complicate your hero’s life, and it won’t fall flat.3. One of the most important aspects of a strong setting is your character’s emotional connection to it. The stronger a character’s connection to her world, the stronger a reader’s connection will be to that world. To strengthen this connection, first choose a setting that perfectly fits your character, then show the character interacting with that setting. For example: South Dakota isn’t on my list of places to visit, but Laura Ingalls Wilder was smitten with it, and through her eyes, I could see its charm. However, a negative connection can be just as strong as a positive one. In Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, lead character Sara Louise hates living on Rass Island. But in describing how detestable it is, Paterson creates a crystal clear view of the place, and the reader comes to realize that the setting is only ugly to Sara Louise because she’s so miserable herself.
Describe your setting through the point of view of your character—its beauty or ugliness, prosperity or poverty, desirability or loathsomeness. Show how the main character is emotionally-connected to the setting and your reader will share that connection as well!
Read on for more help with settings:
Part 2: Describing The Setting
Part 3: Maximizing The Setting
Part 4: World Building
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.