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Stir Up Your Setting

Monday, April 30, 2007

This is a reposting of a series I taught on settings a year ago. Please let me know if you would be interested in my re-teaching/expanding this series by leaving a comment below.

Steel Magnolias. Titanic. Lord of the Rings. What do these three films all have in common?

Dynamic settings.

Would Steel Magnolias have had the same characters if set in a beauty shop on the rough streets of Detroit? Would Jack and Rose’s upstairs-downstairs romance have had the same level tension if they hadn’t been on a certain ill-fated luxury liner? And who can think of Lord of the Rings without bringing to mind the White City of Gondor, the Shire, or Edoras with the Great Hall of Meduseld sitting atop that hill out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by mountains.

What cinematographers can do with cameras, lighting, and computer-generated graphics, we writers must do with words on a page. And not only that, we must do it in a way that incorporates the grittiness of a New York street or the relaxed, honey-filled air of a small Midwestern town into the action of our stories without being intrusive. Movies are allowed wide, sweeping angles of an Arizona desert at sunset. We aren’t.

So how do we draw our readers into our setting without being able to give them grand vistas in Technicolor?

By understanding what setting is and how it can not only enhance our stories, but can help develop our characters, subtly influence the plot, and possibly create tension or conflict in the story.

In the Writer’s Digest Elements of Fiction Writing book Setting, Jack M. Bickham wrote,

Story setting…is not merely the physical backdrop of the tale. It may also include the historical background and cultural attitudes of a given place and time, the mood of a time, and how the story people talk. Also tied closely to setting may be such details as the author’s style, a period’s traditions, and the kind of story the writer wishes to relate. All these factors must dovetail properly with the story’s plot, its characters, the theme and the desired general emotional tone of the piece if the finished fiction is to “work” for the reader. (1)

  1. Tuesday, May 1, 2007 11:27 am

    Oh, I definitely need to work on setting. That is quite possibly the weakest element in my stories. In fact, my stories could probably take place almost anywhere and not be affected. Hmm.


  2. Tuesday, May 1, 2007 11:56 am

    More, please! I want to learn to use setting as another character.


  3. Austin Field permalink
    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 11:59 am

    Oh–ME! I need this series. Bad. Like really bad. Like I had someone read my first three chapters and ask me if I’d ever been to Hong Kong because I didn’t do a good job of describing it.

    The chapters were supposed to be set in San Francisco’s China Town.


  4. Tuesday, May 1, 2007 12:19 pm

    Ahh, one thing I’ve got is setting 🙂 When your story takes place in 1901…you had better have a setting. But I’m all for reading more. I can always improve upon what I have…


  5. Tuesday, May 1, 2007 4:17 pm

    Always interested in learning things to become a better writer.


  6. Drema permalink
    Saturday, May 5, 2007 9:15 am

    Yes, setting would be a good thing to learn more about — I tend to write way too “fast.” 🙂



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