The setting is a powerful force. Not only does it evoke mood, create tension and conflict, allow you to share critical backstory in a non-dumpy way, and draw readers deeper into the story through powerful sensory detail…it can also steer your plot.
If you’re a pantser who likes to go where the wind takes you, or you struggle a bit with plotting, this is great news! After all, we know every scene needs to further the story, but sometimes we draw a blank on how to best do that.
Using the setting to help power your plot is a great way to add depth. Not only can it influence the outer story’s direction, it also will help push the character’s inner journey (character arc) forward. Here are a few ways to achieve this.
Obstacles & Roadblocks
As writers, we should always know our character’s goal within a scene—to obtain information, gain the upper hand, secure something of importance, etc.—and then make sure achievement never comes easy. Yes, we provide friction. Encourage the protagonist to struggle. We force them to work hard to get what they want, and we do this, over and over, scene after scene. Sure, it’s a bit evil of us. But that tension and conflict it creates? That’s what keeps our readers turning pages!
One of the best ways to place a barrier between what the character wants and them getting it is to incorporate an obstacle or roadblock. This forces the protagonist to think on his feet, adapt, or try a new direction.
Every location we choose for our story will come with inherent dangers and possible complications. An obstacle in our character’s path could be as simple as a carpet strewn with Lego as your heroine tries to sneak out of her lover’s home before his kids wake up. It could be a security guard patrolling a warehouse the hero need to break into, a car that won’t turn over when he’s late for an appointment, or a contaminated stream he drinks from while hiking that makes him violently ill. The setting obstacle we choose will make life more difficult and pose a risk, forcing them to be more cautious.
A road block means the protagonist literally can’t proceed as expected. It might come in the form of a washed-out bridge between himself and his destination, pirates patrolling a seafaring trade route he’s always traveled, or a locked door keeping him from what he needs most. Roadblocks and obstacles both force the protagonist to make a choice about how to move forward, steering the events to come.
One beautiful thing we can do with any setting is to “seed” it with emotional triggers. These triggers are symbols which are important to the protagonist in some way, influencing what he thinks, feels, and does.
For example, imagine our protagonist is faced with a difficult decision: to accept a high paying dream job that requires almost constant travel, or pass up the job offer in hopes that the relationship he is currently in will eventually lead to marriage and a family. As he wrestles with this choice, perhaps he takes a lunchtime walk through a park located across from his office building.
If we seed the park with certain triggers such as a busy playground, a young couple pushing a newborn in a stroller, or even a wedding photography session unfolding against a swirling backdrop of fall colors, his heart will focus on his longings to put down roots and start a family. But, choose different triggers, such as a pair of businessmen in power suits discussing multi-million dollar deals as they stroll along the pathway, a line of expensive sports cars parked at the sidewalk, or a colorful poster at a bus stop shelter advertising luxury travel, and the character’s thoughts and actions will go in a different direction.
These setting triggers lead to emotional decision-making and the actions that result will change the story’s trajectory.
Challenges that Characterize
A third way to steer the plot is to use the setting to provide challenges that will lead to success or failure. Whichever is the result, the protagonist will be forced to look within and take stock of his or her strengths and weaknesses. Challenges are useful when it comes to a character’s inner journey, as by default, succeeding or failing influences the story’s direction and the necessary pathway to inner growth (character arc).
For example, let’s say you have a character who has a drinking problem. Lately, it’s become dire, and after his wife leaves him, he decides to get clean. Newly sober, you could test whether he is truly committed to turning his life around simply by placing him in a setting that includes a challenge: easy access to alcohol.
Perhaps the setting is a restaurant where his boss is hosting a retirement dinner, or he’s invited to travel to Vegas for a bachelor party. Or maybe the setting you choose is the pub he passes on his walk home every day. Then, it’s up to you. Does he walk past, or go in? Does he decline the Vegas invite to avoid temptation, or convince himself he deserves one last crazy weekend? Does he drink soda at the retirement dinner, or take advantage of the open bar?
Succeed or fail, in this challenging situation, something will be revealed about the character’s strengths or weaknesses to readers, and the plot will shift accordingly. This might lead to a new opportunity or fallout…you decide!
Are You Using Setting Fully?
Settings are powerful, so much more than a “backdrop” for the scene to unfold. Yes, they provide a sensory opportunity to ground the reader, but they can also do so much more. Make sure you are using each location to its full advantage so it can electrify each story moment with meaning and depth. If you need help, our Urban and Rural Thesaurus books have 220 different settings between them and can show you how to master setting descriptions.
Or view this thesaurus’ expanded version at One Stop for Writers.