Defining Setting: Part 1

We’re looking at Setting this week, also known as place, location, world, milieu and mise-en-scène.  The masters have a lot to say again, but this time I’m going to break up the post into two.  You can find the next part here.  Anyway, let’s get to it.

What is setting?

“When I hear setting, I immediately think of the physical space in which the events of a story occur,” says Rebecca McLanahan, “but in truth, place is only one element of setting.” Here are a few of the masters’ more provocative definitions:

Setting is “the place, location or environment, as well as the time period, in which a story takes place,” says Robert Kernen.

“As important in a story as a sense of place is a sense of time,” says Donald Maass, “both the exact historical moment and the passing hours, days, years, decades, centuries or even millennia.”

“Think of Setting as the stage which contains your story,” says Mary Buckham.  “The Setting orients the readers to the geography, climate, social context, time of the story’s events, foreshadowing of unfolding events, architecture, and much more.”

“A story’s setting is four-dimensional–Period, Duration, Location, Level of Conflict,” says Robert McKee. “Period is a story’s place in time. … Duration is a story’s length through time. … Location is a story’s place in space. … Level of Conflict is the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles.”

“The world of the story,” says John Truby, is “a complex and detailed web in which each element has story meaning and is in some way a physical expression of the character web and especially of the hero.”

Choosing your setting

Chris Roerden sums up the criteria for choosing a setting nicely:  “Don’t pick a place from force of habit or lack of imagination.  Choose each setting for its relevance to your characters and plot, or for its potential in heightening tension and conflict.”

1. Look for settings that affect the character.

“Bring setting into the story in a way that integrates it into the very fabric of your characters’ experience,” says Mr. Maass.  “In other words, you must instill the soul of a place into your characters’ hearts and make them grapple with it as surely as they grapple with the main problem and their enemies.”

2. Look for settings that affect the plot.

“If an interaction lacks tension, consider changing the setting to one that offers conflict of its own,” says Mr. Roerden.

Mr. Kernen agrees:  “Choose a setting that highlights what is happening at that moment.”

3. Look for settings we haven’t experienced before.

“When you choose a setting for your novel, make it somewhere special. Someplace you know well or can get to know well enough to show us a side we don’t know,” says Paula Munier. “Show us a face of your setting that we have not seen before.”

Further, “just as you should choose your overarching setting in a place we haven’t seen before (or find a way to make a known place different, if we have seen it before), you should also set each scene somewhere we haven’t seen before,” says Ms. Munier. “Watch out for settings such as these, which we have seen too many times before:”  Houses, apartments, offices, restaurants, cars, airports, schools, malls, places of worship.  “If you must set a scene in a familiar place, find a way to make it different. And make that difference relate to theme.”

Mr. Maass, however, takes another view:  “The trick is not to find a fresh setting or a unique way to portray a familiar place; rather, it is to discover in your setting what is unique for your characters, if not for you.”

4.  Look for settings we want to experience.

You’re looking for a setting that’s “vicariously rewarding just to be there,” says Larry Brooks, a setting that “has inherent appeal and reward for the reader. … When you add your story to a setting that delivers vicarious experience–when you set your story within this time, place, or context that is, when regarded alone, inherently interesting–you are rewarded with a whole in excess of its parts.”

5. Don’t forget time.

“Choose one central setting, and when you do, place it in history as well,” says Laura Whitcomb.

Mr. Maass has a process to make the time period more significant:

  • Step 1:  What is your novel’s era?  If it is our own, give it a label.
  • Step 2:  Write out your protagonist’s opinion of her times. What does she like about them?  What does she think is wrong about them?
  • Step 3:  Note three details that are particular to this time. Go beyond the obvious details of news events, popular music, clothing, and hairstyles.  Find details that your protagonist would notice.
  • Step 4:  Weave the above results into a passage that captures your protagonist’s sense of the times.”

Time also includes the passage of time. “Ask yourself this:  Does the passage of time have an effect on where my story is going? If so, then the elements of time must be beefed up.”  says William Noble.  When setting time limits “certain questions are implied:  Is there someone or something we are against?  Does failing to meet the time limit put us in danger?  In whose interests does the time limit work?”

6. Make sure your setting is believable.

“Readers usually are quick to balk at believing story people who appear completely out of tune with their setting,” says Jack M. Bickham.  “Does this mean that you should attempt to delineate characters who are perfectly typical of their setting?  By no means.” But “it will help you in making characters and setting harmonious if you do some real-life observing and then draw up a ‘setting list’ for your desired character.”

For example, “Setting depends on character, in two ways,” says Nancy Kress.  “First, setting shapes character.  A twelve-year-old girl growing up in a shack on Louisiana bayou will have much different perceptions and values that one growing up in a penthouse in New York City. Second, adult characters often seek out setting compatible with their natural personalities; a restless fearless adventurer is unlikely to stay at a clerical job in a six-by-eight cubicle in an insurance office.”

7. Having trouble coming up with a setting?

Ms. Whitcomb has a trick:  “In your head, put your main character and your plot problem on a blank canvas. No setting at all. Do either the protagonist or the problem dictate a time in history? If so, look at that time and go through a list of places your story might take place…. Choose a new setting, one that adds tension by contrasting with the story or by mirroring the story. … If you aren’t tied to a certain period of history, think about what year would offer the most tension to your plot.”

Note:  These criteria work for your overall story setting and your settings for each scene.

Techniques for choosing setting details

So you’ve picked your setting.  Now you’ve got to show it to the reader.  Which details should you show?

1. Get Pushy.

Again, ’cause it’s important, choose details that affect the character, that push her buttons.

2. Get Active.

Yup, broken record here:  Choose details that affect the plot, that force the character to take action.

3. Get Selective.

“As always, be selective,” says Mr. Roerden. “Offer a few well-chosen details and trust your readers’ imaginations to fill in the rest.”

“Generally, try not to explain the obvious (the ocean was vast), the trite (Bali looked like paradise), or the normal (the sand was beige),” says Jessica Page Morrell.  “Instead, concentrate on unusual and fresh descriptions.”

4. Get Fresh.

“It doesn’t take many details to conjure a milieu,” says Mr. Maass, “but a milieu will spring to life most effectively when those details are not known to most people.”

5. Get specific.

“The key here is to avoid generalizations or vagueness, and stick to specific, concrete detail,” says Mr. Bickham.

Lisa Cron agrees:  “Root through your story and make sure you’ve translated anything brain-numbingly vague, abstract, or generic into something that’s surprisingly specific, deliciously tangible, and grippingly visceral.”

6.  Get sensory.

What the character sees is good.  What the character hears, smells, tastes, touches and feels, both emotionally and in that sixth-sense kind of way, is good too.

7.  Get busy.

“Notice that the physical story world acts as a ‘condenser-expander’ for the storyteller,” says Mr. Truby. “You have very little time to create a massive amount of material: characters, plot, symbols, moral argument, and dialogue.  So you need techniques that allow you to condense meaning into the limited space and time you have.  The more meaning you condense in the story, the more the story expands in the minds of the audience, with the story’s elements mentally ricocheting against one another in almost infinite ways.”

In other words, “we need a story reason to care how ominous the clouds are, how vibrant the city, how quaint the white picket fence,” says Ms. Cron. “So if you go to great pains to describe the scenery…you’d better actually be communicating something else.”

So, “whenever possible, scrutinize your setting descriptions to determine if they can accomplish more than one task,” says Ms. Morrell.

What kind of multitasking can setting do?

1. Setting can reveal character.

“Define the kind of setting a character is to be found in, and by so doing you go far toward defining the kind of character it must be,” says Mr. Bickham.

“There’s more going on than just details about the setting,” says Raymond Obstfeld, “word choices echo the character’s state of mind.” “Without overdoing the description, the reader gets a snapshot of the scenery…, which also defines [the character’s] existence and choices, but also gets a peek at the kind of girl [the character] is.”

2. Setting can create conflict.

“Overall, you want the setting to operate similar to a character. That is, a good deal of the time, you want the setting to be opposed to your Lead character,” says Mr. Bell.  “City or country, rural or populated, every setting holds the possibility not just for conflict between characters, but for being part of the conflict itself. That’s where you need to take your mind.”

3. Setting can create suspense.

“Look at the possibility of introducing a real or just perceived change in the setting you’ve been using, or changing the way you’ve been describing the setting,” says Mr. Bickham. (We’ll get into suspense more next week.)

4. Setting can speak to theme (and premise).

“World building is only as effective as the themes that inform it,” says Ms. Munier. “If your setting requires world building, think about how the various aspects of that world can speak to your themes and variations on theme.”

5. Setting can create limits and control events.

“Limitation is vital,” says Mr. McKee. “The first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world.”

“When we think of setting–or place–we must see it primarily in terms of how it can limit or control the story line. We must use it as a basis for building action and suspense because it will enhance them and provide an arena where conflict can flourish,” says Mr. Noble.

“Restricting the space in which your story takes place is another excellent way of creating tension,” says Mr. Kernan. “In such small spaces there is nowhere for the characters to retreat and very little room for safety valves where tension between characters can be vented.”

6. Setting can create mood and tone.

Jordan Rosenfeld says, “Allow scenery to set the tone of the scene. Say your scene opens in a jungle where your character is going to face danger; you can describe the scenery in language (simile, metaphors) that conveys darkness, fear, and mystery.”

7. Setting can reflect feelings.

Ms. Rosenfeld says, “Use scenery to reflect a character’s feelings. Say you have a sad character walking through a residential neighborhood. The descriptions of the homes can reflect that sadness; houses can be in disrepair, with rotting wood and untended yards.”

That’s it for Part 1

But I’ve got five more ways to multitask your setting, plus techniques for doling out setting and for going deep with your setting.  Come back tomorrow for Part 2!

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