We all know there are many important elements that make up a good story. Characterization, plot, and dialogue come immediately to mind. But in doing some research, I’ve discovered I haven’t done enough thinking about Setting.
And it’s so important.
“Setting is a conscious choice the writer makes during the pre-writing phase,” says John Galligan (author of Tools for Fiction Writers) in an article for the Mystery Writers of America newsletter. “[S]etting feeds and supports your fiction, sometimes in subtle, not evident ways.” He goes on to say that “many of the essentials of setting will show up in your first draft but many more will need to be crafted or refined during revision.”
So, what can we do to improve and use the power of Setting to enhance our work?
Galligan suggests breaking it out into its dimensions:
Place: The most obvious is, of course, where. But there’s more to that; think the whole spectrum of “big” (A city? State? Mythical world?) down to the “microscopic” (a brilliant detail). That’s what we reach for when we revise.
Time: Now we go into the “Scale of When.” Time in history? Time of year? Of life? and of course, Time of story. We need to seek for those details, lines of dialogue, that clarify the scale of when, that ground the reader in our story.
Mood/Theme: This moves us into a more subliminal mindset. Think big picture (a disaster, maybe a tsunami). Then consider the emotions it causes: despair, loss, horror—a whole spectrum of emotions, evidenced by . . .
Character: Setting shapes characters in terms of who they are in the beginning of your story and who (in the storyline) they will become. It determines how they walk, talk, eat, think, react—in short, everything. And let’s not forget . . .
Pace: How your story moves from one setting to another. Perhaps your character finds herself uncomfortable—raising the tension—as you skip from one scene to another? Galligan says, “Think of a story as a finite arrangement of settings” that link dramatic actions. “Spending too much time in one and not enough in another creates imbalance and a pacing problem.”
Galligan again: “It all comes down to details and choices. We can’t describe everything.”
I’m paraphrasing here: He advocates striving for consistency, richness and economy, working across details that cross boundaries within Setting, such as describing late summer with “silver maples humming with cicadas.” This not only gives the reader a mental image but at the same time conveys information about place (where) and Mood/Theme.
Whew! Who’d have thought there was so much to consider within the broad word: Setting. I, for one, will go back into the manuscript I’m working on to see how much better it can be with just a few more (or less! Sometimes I’m wordy) detail. I want my story to give my readers so much more than just a place where something happens. I want to give them the depth and height and width that Setting can provide.
Nancy Sweetland has authored seven picture books and a chapter book mystery for young readers, along with short stories for juveniles and adults. Adult novels include The Spa Murders, The Virgin Murders, The Door to Love, Wannabe, The House on the Dunes, The Countess of Denwick, and The Shopkeeper’s Secret. She lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin and loves to hear from readers.