If you look at stories as a combination of characters, plot, and setting mixed in with style, voice and point of view; setting is definitely the least interesting to me. It’s usually the last thing I consider – if I consider it at all.
Maybe that can be okay for picture books – after all, it leaves more room for the illustrator. But I’m realizing more and more that setting can be a huge part of writing a novel. My current obsession is very dependent on the setting. And I’m finding lots of perks in that! I just might be a setting convert.
Beyond an opportunity for playing with language to create visual images, setting can:
- Make your story real – details help the reader to believe your words and world
- Subtly- or not so subtly – setting sets the mood
- Creates organic tension through landscape or weather. Mother Nature is beyond our (and our characters’) control
- Trigger plot events that work for your story world
- Work as an objective correllative: a symbolic way to evoke emotion or other intangible concepts
My middle grade WIP which I’ve left in the slow cooker drawer for awhile has a very vague setting. This was a deliberate decision. I thought this lack of defining would make the story more universal – that more readers would relate and imagine themselves in the story. But now I realize – to be honest because of a very helpful comment by an editor – that it’s the specificity that makes a story real – and in that way it becomes more universal and true.
Just started reading Andrew Smith’s In the Path of Falling Objects last night. Oooo, the setting here has me worried! Two brothers are stranded in the harsh barren desert of New Mexico – survival is going to be tough. Can not wait to read more.
For more articulate and thoughtful tips on the use of setting in stories, check out the latest issue of the Horn Book Magazine. Julie Larios has written an article on literary maps and how they are tied into the idea of setting. I heard a version of this during the VCFA day in San Francisco. It’s sure to get your brain a-wandering.
Sarah Wones Tomp
WRITING ON THE SIDEWALK