- Plausible settings help readers suspend their disbelief.
- Choose a setting that is distinctive and illustrates the theme of the story.
- Describe the setting through a few details.
- Collect places where a story can be set and consider which details to describe them by.
In my last post, I talked about character and plot, which are two of the legs of the tripod a story stands on. To shamelessly mix metaphors, setting tends to be the middle child of the three legs. Like all the best middle children, it’s often more important than visible. It’s taken me some time to realise quite how important the setting is, but now I rate it so highly I think it’s worth two separate posts. When I consider novels and stories I’ve enjoyed, I usually feel I have a strong sense of the setting even though I don’t notice it unless I look for it.
When I refer to setting, I’m going to be talking about the place the story takes place in and why that is a key element of the story. There is some overlap with worldbuilding, the process of constructing a setting from scratch, but that is not the main focus of these posts.
Why is the setting important?
The setting carries a number of functions in a story. The most obvious is to provide background colour. Without that, the reader will feel they’re in a windowless white room. Even if the story does take place in a windowless white room, the protagonist is likely to take a moment to contemplate the walls.
Sometimes, the themes and events of a story need to happen in a place where certain things come together. To follow the Raymond Chandler theme from the last post, Philip Marlowe wouldn’t have had much to do if he’d ended up on the mean streets of Buckinghamshire. Los Angeles dangled the allure of Hollywood glamour in front of the poor working class, with a bit of organised crime thrown in. Chandler was educated in Britain and could have written about Buckinghamshire if he’d wanted to, but Los Angeles gave him what he wanted.
Val McDermid described another use of setting in the podcast I recommended a few months ago, saying that if the story is grounded in a well described setting, the reader is more likely to believe outlandish things that happen there.
Other writers use the setting for atmosphere. It’s impossible to imagine meeting Count Dracula anywhere other than in his desolate castle, surrounded by packs of wolves and cowed serfs. We remember that atmosphere when he inserts himself into the genteel drawing rooms of London, so that part of the tension that makes Dracula a classic is derived from the tension between those two settings.
Choosing a setting
It’s easy to neglect the choice of setting when planning a story, and simply go with the first thing that springs to mind. This is where it’s worth engaging the cliché detector, because the first thought is rarely the best.
I recently wrote a story set several decades into a rather dystopian view of the future. Most of the action would take place in one room, so the natural thing was for the protagonist drive up to the antagonist’s house and confront him. It wasn’t something I’d given a lot of thought to. If you want to confront someone, you drive to their house. It’s obvious. So obvious it set off my cliché detector. It was a boring setting. How much more interesting would the story be if the antagonist was squatting in what had once been a luxury waterfront flat, which had been abandoned it because the rising sea level had flooded the ground floor? It made no difference to the body of the story, which took place in the antagonist’s home, but it added an air of decline and dilapidation that brought home the theme. Driving up to the house was something that could have happened next door, and just wouldn’t have done it. Much as I’d like to link to the story so you can judge for yourself, it’s currently under contract but not yet published so I can’t.
The place you know
The easiest choice is often a place you know well. That can work, but there’s a danger in over familiarity. If it’s a place you’ve spent all your life, there are probably a lot of things about it that you take for granted. Even if the protagonist is as familiar with the place as you are, you’re still introducing the reader to somewhere new so you need to give them a few details. For that reason, it’s often easier to use a setting that you’ve had to learn your way around yourself.
That said, it can be a mistake to focus on the most obvious details. There’s more to most places in the tropics than delicious fruit, but you wouldn’t know it from some of the descriptions that appear in fiction. The most obvious detail is rarely the best one to bring up, and more to the point, it’s rarely the one that is going to advance the story.
Settings in search of a story
Once in a while, I find myself in a place that simply begs for a story to be set there. When I was on the Isle of Wight, I stayed next to an abandoned holiday camp. Holidaymakers of the sixties and seventies had stayed in little huts that looked as though they’d been designed as prefabricated barracks. They had been built with asbestos in the roofs, and the place was abandoned when legislation against it was introduced. The site was never redeveloped because nobody stumped up the cost of containing the asbestos while demolishing the huts, so it had been decaying for decades by the time I saw it.
The wall of the ballroom had collapsed and replaced with a green screen of climbing plants. Old portacabins that had served who knows what purpose were crumbling on to the concrete they were parked on. There was an air of desolation to the whole place that begged to for a story, and so Summer Holidays coalesced around it.
It’s always been something of an itinerant, and I’ve learned to keep my mind open for places that might make a vivid setting. That said, it’s not necessary to travel the world in search of a place to set a story. Simply keeping the mind open can lead to an unexpected impression of a familiar place. The right detail carries more weight than half a page of description. If you happen to find a place that strikes you, is there a story to be set there? If you find yourself standing in a place you pass every day, ask yourself what might have happened here fifty, a hundred, five hundred years ago or fifty, a hundred or five hundred years in the future.
This is the thinking that turns a real place into a fictional setting.