Dude, Where's My Story? or Choosing Your Setting
What do real estate and writing have in common? They both know that success will depend on location, location, location! You’ve probably guessed this week’s topic… Setting. What is setting? Well, at its most simplistic, setting is the location of your story. It sounds simple, but you have to remember, that definition includes… everything, everywhere, everywhen. Truly.
Setting involves both the time and the place of the story. That means the world or time period, a new world or a never before period of time. But it can also mean climate, environment, even the societal and cultural influences.
It can be grand in scope, like creating a brand-new galaxy like in Star Wars, or as small and confined as a single room, like in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” By the way, if you’ve never read it, read it. I mean, it’s a short story. It won’t take long. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Better read it. I’m watching you…
Okay, back to setting. Like I said, setting is the everywhere and everywhen you can imagine. And it’s not just a backdrop. Setting is really only second to the plot. Why? Because, just like the plot of your story, the setting influences everything that happens between your first words and your last. Whether your story takes place in the year 1307 or 2313 it will change how your characters get from place to place. Whether your entire story takes place underwater or underground matters in how plants and animals look and behave. Whether your story takes place in Nawlins or Boston will affect the dialogue you right. The point is, while it may seem inconsequential, your choice of contributes to more than creating a pretty mental picture.
Your choice of setting will also affect the tone and feel of your story. Certain places and spaces conjure and create certain expectations within your reader. An old, abandoned house, a dark empty road, a fog-covered graveyard under moonlight? You automatically start thinking ghost story, horror, or mystery. A bucolic hamlet, a field of wheat in golden sunlight, a cobblestone path through a central square? You may think period piece, historic fiction, or fantasy.
No matter what you choose, the effects of that choice is the gravitational force that keeps your characters, dialogue, theme, point of view, and plot from spinning off in different directions.
And it gets even more complicated because, sometimes, the setting can function almost as a character in the story. If your setting has a particularly strong presence, its does more than affect your story. It becomes involved in your story. We’ll cover that in a later episode though. For now, let’s keep it relatively simple.
At its heart, setting can be broken down into four major types: temporal, environmental, personal, and cultural. Temporal settings relate to the time period or era in which the story’s action takes place. Is the story set in the Cretaceous Period, the Bronze Age, the Medieval Era, the present day, or the far distant future?
Environmental setting, on the other hand, is the physical surrounding elements in your story. The environment includes whether you use tropical or frigid climates, urban or rural landscapes, New York City or a Tahitian village. It is generally the most obvious where of your story. Personal settings are similar to environmental settings except where environmental is macro-level, personal is the micro-level. Personal setting is the orphanage, the widow’s mansion, the big top tent of a travelling circus, or room 224 at the Sundown Hotel and Travel Inn.
And lastly, there’s the cultural setting. This setting is the soul of the space. It’s the unspoken, ever-present social/community flavor that colors and regulates how anything in the setting, including characters, how anything in the setting relates and interacts to any other thing in that setting. What I mean is, the cultural setting will affect how people interact with each other, how objects are used or seen together, how clothing and skin balance each other. All of these elements contribute to and are influence by your setting.
So, that’s what setting is, and that’s what setting does, but A.S., how do I choose the setting that’s right for my story?
I’ll tell you in my tips and tricks for choosing setting!
Tips & Tricks
When you’re considering the where and when that is best to place your story into, try asking yourself these questions first.
1) When is your story? Be as specific as you can when you answer. Work from a time period or era but focus it down until you know the very hour of the day from which your story starts.
2) Where is your story? Again, try to be as specific as possible. You can start from the outside and work your way inwards. What planet are you on? What continent, country, city, county neighborhood, house, what room?
3) What rules or behavior exist as a result of where and when you are? Is the climate hot” That will affect the clothing. Is it the far future? The technology seen should be new and creative. Is the environment tropical? Times and deadlines may be loose and laid back even in business.
These questions should get you started, but if you want to delve a little into the details, try answering these questions.
1) What’s the history of this place?
2) Are there any landmarks/monuments or old and ancient structures?
3) How’s the weather? What are seasons like?
4) How do people get around? What type of transportation is used?
5) If music exists in this place, how would it sound?
That should get you going down the path to an appropriate, well-thought-out setting. But if you want to really show what you know, then you should try the bi-weekly Wordsmith Challenge!
So, we talked about it. We’ve explored examples and we have a handful of tips and tricks at our disposal. Now, let’s put our pens where are words are and put what we’ve learned into practice!
In 250 words or less, describe a setting for a scene or larger story. You can go big like a city or landscape or small like a house or a single room. To enter your description in this challenge, send your piece to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "setting challenge." The winner’s piece will be posted on the aslewisbooks.com website and will get a shoutout on a future podcast episode. And speaking of winners, let’s see the winning entry for last episode’s plot structure challenge.
And the winner is… Corrin L. with her short story plot outline!
1. Exposition – a man boards a train in New Orleans
2. Inciting Incident – a woman takes a seat next to him, in a mostly empty train car
3. The Problem – the man wanted solitude
4. The Conflict or Obstacle – the woman insists on conversation
5. The Resolution – the two share a cigarette and a good conversation
Congratulations, Corrin! Keep up the good work. Next episode, we will highlight the winner for best point of view entry. And remember, if you send in your work, you could be featured on a future blog post.
And if you don’t want to share your work, that’s okay too. The important thing is that you’re writing and trying something new. That’s how writing gets better! Even if you hate what you wrote, the practice will pay off.