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Setting in Stone 1: A Place for a Story

Hey Virtually Readers! You may not remember, but way back in June I published a excellent popular post about setting and how non Western European or North American settings are discriminated against. You guys were really into the post—yay!—which got me thinking more about setting, and so I have decided to commence a new discussion series called Setting in Stone. Shar thinks the name is stupid, but I’m ignoring her. I’m very good at that. I don’t know how long this series is going to go on for—I have about 10 posts planned, and will write as the inspiration strikes, but this first one is going to be about how setting informs story.

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Setting is a vital part of the story. It sets limitations for the characters and plot, informs mood and atmosphere, and usually shapes the climax.

How is setting a limit, and why is that a good thing? If a book is set in a small town, it means that the characters are focused on how to get out or how to stay. If a story is set in a city, then the isolation and opportunity will again pull characters in two directions. To some extent, yes, this is a trope, but that’s how settings limit character mindsets.

By the Chekov’s gun principle, a setting also limits plot. If a certain shop is mentioned, it must become significant in some way. If a lake is part of the setting, then something has to happen at the lake. Obviously, an author can make her setting fit her story—in fact, she should make the setting fit the story—but geographical limitations also apply. There can’t be a lake in the middle of a story set in the desert. There can’t be a tornado in a story set in a rainforest. These rules of geography have to dictate how the story unfolds within a setting. In magical realism, perhaps, all bets are off; but still this is a general rule.

Why are so many cute, summery books set in beachside towns during the summer? Because sunshine and beaches makes the reader think of cute fluffy things. Similarly, creepy books are often set in forests or winter time, like Megan Miranda’s Vengeance. These Broken Stars, a space opera with a romance and a mystery, is on a lush but empty planet, conveying an atmosphere of beauty and eeriness, while the harsher, more brutal Illuminae consists of the barren metal walls of spaceships. The connotations of various settings are quickly formed, and, along with writing style and content, contribute to the ‘mood’ of a novel. A forest can mean magic or horror. A cozy college dorm is more like a place for falling in love with someone you didn’t expect.

Finally, setting aids the story by informing character choices towards the climax. For example, in Rebel of the Sands, the climax involves a character raiding a train and discovering a (non-metaphorical) power. If the book had had the same Western vibe but been set in, say, a mountainous region, the climax would have been different, both in details (e.g. sand is everywhere, trains wouldn’t have existed) and in broad terms (how the characters escaped and how they felt).

The effect the setting has on the narrative is impossible to quantify and certainly variable between books. Swallows and Amazons, a classic children’s book set in the Lake District of England, revolves around the lake. The story would be utterly different if set in Iowa. However, while stories set in generic small towns or big cities do depend on their settings, it may not make much difference whether the setting is Portland or London, Derbyshire or Queensland.

It’s safe to say that setting is pretty important, even if it’s not immediately obvious how. Over the next few weeks I’m going to try to show different aspects of the interaction between setting and story, and it’s going to be awesome.

What’s one story where you feel like the setting had a big influence? Are you excited for this series? tell me your thoughts in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Setting in Stone 1: A Place for a Story

  1. this was an interesting post, and definitely true. so much of my novel and it’s mood is based solely on the setting, and i really hope that i can pull it off. looking forward to the more detailed posts related to settings!xx

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  2. “The Road” has an incredibly evocative setting – a long road in a very, very dark world. The author’s use of non-standard grammar (incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, etc.) does as good a job of any book I’ve read at placing you in the scene with the fewest words possible.

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