Getting the Most from Your Story's Setting

Have you ever read a story and realized that it could take place absolutely nowhere else? Or realized that you can't recall exactly where the story was set? (Maybe in the American suburb of Generica -- or perhaps the little town of Blandsville?)

Though every piece of fiction has a setting, not every author exploits it to the fullest degree. As you write, consider the impact of setting on different aspects of the story.

First off, let's think about the ways not only characters but communities make their living. Every locale has its economic lifesblood. Even if your protagonist has chosen a different career path, his/her parents, neighbors, distant relatives, and the people he/she passes on the street are all likely to have their attitudes, outlooks, even their ways of speaking skewed by the community's raison d'etre. Your character may fit right in, or she may be in conflict with her setting, for example a vegetarian in cattle country, a young person fighting to finish college and escape the blue collar factory setting that has employed several generations of his family, or the man who chooses to work with his hands to the horror of his Ivy League professor parents. The ever-popular "fish out of water" and "stranger in town" plots capitalize on the conflict between a character and his/her setting.

Whether you call it mood, tone, or atmospherics, you can often mine the story's setting for the story's feel, either complementing or contrasting with your characters' personalities or dialogue. Anyone who tells you you can't begin a scene or story with description hasn't thought about the way setting can be used to build anticipation for the coming action.

Here's one example, from the opening paragraph of my romantic thriller, Beneath Bone Lake (Lovespell, June 2009):

The boatman’s paddle dug deep beneath the moss-green surface, biting and twisting like a switchblade’s killing thrust. Pulse thrummed and muscles burned as he dragged the canoe forward, threading through a swamp-dank maze of pale trees, the ghost sentries of a forest flooded years before. Above, the skeletal branches reached skyward into silver, their bony fingers veiled in Spanish moss and predawn mist.

And for the sake of contrast, here's another, from Head On (Lovespell, 7/2007), a novel that's less of a thriller and more of a small town (Texas) romantic suspense:

Ask anyone in emergency services – rescue crews and deputies, even the staff of a rural Texas hospital known to area residents as Jackrabbit General. They’ll all swear it’s true, what you hear about the full moon bringing out the crazies. Friday the thirteenth, too, draws out its share of bad luck, sometimes even among those who deny such superstitions. Accidents, assaults, attempted suicides: regardless of how the skeptics or the statisticians spin them, the unluckiest events take place on this unlucky day. But every now and then, in a rare alignment of misfortunes, a Friday falling on the thirteenth coincides with the full moon. On this strangest of strange days, all bets are off and anything can happen.

Choosing details illuminating your setting's gentler or more ridiculous aspects work to illustrate a lighter story. By controlling the "emotional subtext" of your description, the author prepares the reader to receive the story in the same state it was written.

How does your story's setting impact what you're currently writing? How would your story be different if it were set in another place and time?


Mylène said…
Oh, yummy, a setting discussion! Setting lives next to character on a little cul-de-sac in my heart (until plot gets them moving). Many of my novels have begun with atmospheric openings establishing place and mood; often these preambles get cut as the manuscript progresses because they go on for too long. I remember The Medusa Tree began this way:

"It was a long time before she knew about the white house with the red-tiled roof and the sweeping, supple porches that were like the house itself come out of doors into the furled, Indies shade."

The sentence ended up being cut (I ended up beginning to the book in California), but I needed it, because it told me where the beating heart of the novel was going to live, what I wanted the reader to see.

Thanks for reminding me of all this, Colleen. Setting is not window-dressing. It is foundation.
Jeanna Thornton said…
My design business is called Perfect Settings...I try to remember the principles of design when I describe an area when I write...give and take away... I am a lush gusher...much to learn from this blog!! :) :P
That sounds delicious, Mylene. For me, setting a story is like setting a table - an excellent precursor for the delicious meal to follow.

And I like the other thing you bring up as well - that it's often possible to write an opening that's just for the author, to get her started. Once you've hit your stride (or completed the draft) you can go back and see where it is the story really starts.

I've cut a lot of prologues for that very reason, finding that *I* may need them but my readers are better served by splinters of backstory strategically placed throughout the manuscript.
So glad you stopped by. Sounds as if the name of your design biz perfectly reflects your writing, too. Welcome back, and thanks for the kind words!
This is a great post! Something you touch on that Nathan Bransford also reminds us of is that settings are dynamic, not static. I've been thinking about this as I continue the work on my own manuscript.

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