Setting can be one of the most overlooked aspects of writing a story. Some writers (myself included) make the mistake of looking at the setting as a simple container for the characters to interact in. The setting, in short, becomes a minor detail.
In my journey to publication I have learned that every factor of a story is interconnected and works off of one another, and setting is no different. Let’s take a look at 3 examples from famous stories.
When I say Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter I’m willing to bet that you remember something about the setting of these stories: (the ice planet Hoth, the ancient temple complete with rolling boulder booby trap, or the dank and dismal chamber of secrets) all of these believe it or not, interact with the other parts of the story in some way to give the reader a clearer view of the whole picture.
In The Empire Strikes Back, seeing the massive Imperial walkers seem to materialize out of the frost of the ice planet adds to the feeling of foreboding that sets the tone for that opening scene. (and makes watching them fall that much more of a relief)
In Raiders of the Lost Ark the opening scene gives us a glimpse into the kind of integrity our fedora sporting hero has when he brushes tarantulas off of his jungle guide (it also adds a comedic tinge to the film which gives audiences an early clue that they can expect some levity in the movie.)
The Chamber of Secrets is a dark and eerie pit. The air of claustrophobia that comes with that setting is the perfect recipe for dread when we see Tom Riddle’s big reveal. (no spoilers)
This is something that would be lost if the story were titled Harry Potter and the Tastefully Lit Room.
Setting is a choice, and when you write a story chances are you have already made that choice. So I’m not suggesting you scrap where you want your story to take place in favour of something else, I’m saying that you have to find the unique aspects of that setting that will add to your story, rather than just give it a place to exist in.
Here are some questions I ask myself when I think about the setting in my stories.
What are the unique challenges to your central story and characters in this setting?
How does the setting affect my characters, and in turn how do they react to each other?
Who else is there?
What does this choice of setting say about my character?
Am I trying to say something about my broader message with this setting?
Is there a traditional setting that my chosen genre must incorporate, and if so am I going to follow that outline? (if yes how are you going to put your unique spin on it? If not, how are you going to keep fans of that genre from feeling cheated?)
One of my biggest loves of writing fiction is its fluidity of it. You can give 5 different people the same writing prompt and you will get 5 different stories in return. If you have any questions you ask yourself when developing setting feel free to share them with Mark at [email protected]