Many writers spend years working on characters and plot, which are both fundamental to a good story. But today I am going to talk about something that I think can be overlooked as a valuable tool in a writer’s toolkit – setting.
Setting can play a huge role in a book. Depending on how much it is interwoven into a story, it can even become its own character, as important as some of the other secondary characters to the plot. Let’s dive right into some of the reasons why setting is so fundamental.
Setting can help provide a foundation to a characters’ actions. Think about it this way. If your story’s setting takes place in a small southern town, then your reader will expect those characters to act differently than a story that takes place in New York City. A small town is ‘usually’ more welcoming and open to new people. Although if this is not the case in your small town story, then the fun of breaking that expectation is providing the reader with a reason why the characters are not trusting to outsiders.
Setting helps provide backstory. As writers we have all been told again and again NOT to inundate the reader with a lot of backstory, especially in the beginning of a manuscript. The use of setting can be a subtle way of introducing backstory without it being an ‘info dump’. A heroine who grows up in a small mid-western farm town will be different than a heroine who grows up in Beverly Hills. At least at first glance. As writers we then get to build upon our characters’ motivations.
Setting can develop a sense of suspense. Setting is a great way to build drama. Suspense books often use backdrops of the jungle to help heighten the danger. When the hero and heroine not only are fighting the bad guy but nature too, it ramps up that heart-pounding action. And what about isolated settings, like the Arctic or a space station? Add a killer into the mix with no way for the innocent to escape and the setting alone has ramped up the fright.
Setting can create mood. New Orleans, London, LA, Moscow. Just the names alone provide images to the reader. Settings convey mood. Why do you think there are so many vampire books that take place in New Orleans? Because there is a sense of ‘other’ in that city. This can also be conveyed not only through cities, but physical locations as well. A dilapidated house that the hero and heroine find when their car breaks down can set the stage for fear (horror) or anticipation (romance).
Setting can create conflict. Picture a small ski town that has fallen on hard times. The heroine grew up in this town. Her father is the mayor. She is the head of the historical society. Now imagine a developer coming to town with ideas of turn this small picturesque place into a resort. Instant conflict! With the setting as the reason for the conflict!
Setting can provide a springboard for a writing trope. Let’s talk first about the wonderful ‘fish out of water’ trope. How often do we see stories about a hero or heroine who are thrown into an environment that is totally different than what they are used to? Jaded city girl’s car breaks down in a small town. Country boy heads to the big city for the chance of a record deal. The setting is the impetus for emphasizing how out of their element these characters really are.
Another wonderful trope that setting plays a part in is the ‘there’s no place like home’ trope. Heroine breaks away from her small town at eighteen and vows never to come back. Until she realizes that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Setting is her impetus to come home and face those people in her past.
Setting can help with the SHOW don’t TELL issue writers face. Writers have to be really careful not to simply tell their readers about their characters. So use setting to help show what the characters are all about. If your heroine walks out of her florist shop and meanders down the street of her town and sees the other store owners decorating for the high school homecoming parade and someone remarks to her that she was the prettiest homecoming queen they ever had, the reader has already gathered a huge amount of information about the heroine without being told about her. Or how about this. If you start off your story in a baseball locker room where the hero is being massaged after a game and he is grimacing as the trainer runs his thumbs over his shoulder scar, the reader gets an idea of who the hero is without TELLING them.
Setting immerses a reader into the story. If setting becomes an integral part of the story, little details are bound to be introduced. These little details and descriptions help create a picture for the reader. And in creating a picture, the reader is more likely to be drawn into the story. A small sea town with the waves crashing on the beach and the bleached wooden docks provide a picture for the reader. Which is what every writer is looking for. Pull that reader in so that they become friends with the characters and imagine what it would be like to live in the town or city or alternate universe that you have created.
So as you are sitting and thinking about your characters and plot for your newest story, take time to scope out what your setting will be as well. It can flesh out your story and make it a realistic world for your reader to visit. And if you write series, the setting is even more important since you hope to entice your reader to visit your world again and again. Setting is character, and backstory, and mood, and conflict, and plot device.
For your next story, start with your setting and see where it takes you with characters and plot. You may be surprised to find that you end up in a totally different place than you expected! But an interesting place, nonetheless.
Growing up a TV junkie, award winning author AE Jones oftentimes rewrote endings of episodes in her head when she didn’t like the outcome. She immersed herself in sci-fi and soap operas. But when Buffy hit the little screen she knew her true love was paranormal. Now she spends her nights weaving stories about all variation of supernatural—their angst and their humor. After all life is about both…whether you sport fangs or not.
AE lives in Ohio with her eclectic family and friends who in no way resembles any characters in her books. Honest. Now her two cats are another story altogether.
The last thing she wants is to be dragged into another supernatural crisis, but the Fates have something more interesting in store for her. Since the tricky wenches love to mess with people, Kyle isn’t really surprised. And once she learns Trina, the young shifter girl whose memory she erased, is being stalked again, Kyle will do whatever it takes to protect her.
Normally a secretive group, the shifters reluctantly agree to allow Kyle and her vampire and demon teammates to investigate. Are the poachers who kidnapped Trina back for revenge? But when other shifters are also targeted, Kyle becomes convinced there is more to the attacks than vengeance. And when the violence escalates and Griffin, the enigmatic leader of the shifters, ends up in the crosshairs, the team braces for a bloodbath.
Scrambling to identify the mysterious group bent on destroying the shifters, and why, Kyle is also haunted by dreams and painful flashes from the prophesied Key of Knowledge which has taken up residence in her brain. In typical Kyle fashion, she decides to ignore it, but the more she ignores it, the more it digs its claws into her consciousness. If she can’t learn to embrace the Key and ask for help from those closest to her, she could lose her sanity before she’s able to prevent a shifter civil war.