Sunday, July 14, 2013

Setting the Stage

We all learned it in school:


What is setting exactly? It's the place(s), time(s) and circumstances in which the story takes place. Setting includes

  • the year(s) during which the action takes place.
  • The country, city, province where the characters live.
  • The rural, urban or suburban setting.
  • The rooms they inhabit.
  • The fields, pastures, mountains, deserts, seashores where they travel.
  • The circumstances in which they exist 
    • Is it wartime or  or peacetime?
    • Is it a time of  famine or prosperity?
    • Do they experience personal wealth or poverty?
Setting is just about the last thing I think about when I'm writing.

I don't mean I don't place my stories carefully: Catch the Sun couldn't take place anywhere but Los Angeles. Bear Medicine had to unfold on the Pine Ridge Reservation where the Lakota tribe lives. And my latest book, Down on Ten Toes needed the big bad city vibe of New York in the seventies.

What I mean is, my settings are driven by the story I want to tell, not the other way around.

You could do it the other way. You could be inspired by a place and/or a time, and create characters and a story tailored to that setting. In that case, the setting becomes a character in the drama, maybe the main character.

I wonder if Thomas Hardy wrote that way. So much of his work begins with pages of detailed descriptions of a place, and, almost as if by accident, a character wanders into the scene, a small dot on the landscape, a mere feature of the setting.

Of course, modern readers find Hardy unbearably tedious--for good reason. But if you want to show how a place, an atmosphere can create character and action, you can still do it. Woody Allen did it recently in the movies with Midnight in Paris which is nothing if not a love letter to the City of Lights.

Here's how I do it, I think. (The process happens organically and almost all at once so it's hard to separate the elements).
  • First I'm inspired by a character or characters who intrigue me, who work on my imagination and don't let go.
  • Next I imagine how these characters will behave given a certain set of circumstances. Sometimes even dull people can become interesting due to the effect of circumstances on their psyches.
    • Will they grow and learn? 
    • Will they give in to their most selfish impulses?
    • Will they be destroyed by the circumstances?
  • After that, I create their actions--what they  think, say, and do to affect their world and the other characters This becomes the plot.
  • Finally, I place them in the setting or settings that seem most appropriate for the development of their story.
You can do this any way you want. Like I said, the setting can inspire you first and everything else can come out of it.

Or you can have a plot you want to explore first and let the characters and setting evolve out of that.

What  doesn't work is to shortchange one of  these three elements. And the element that is the easiest to shortchange is the setting.

And here's the important thing: you must attend to the setting in every scene. It isn't enough just to establish the overall setting, for example London, 1943 during the blitzkrieg

Every time your characters appear on the page, we need to know where they are, what they're doing, where they're going, if they're coming back from somewhere. Are they smoking a cigarette? Reading a book? Staring out the window? Walking?

Have you ever read a story in which two characters are having a conversation and you have no idea where they are, what time of day it is, whether they're sitting, standing or walking? A conversation which seems to exist nowhere at all? It's a strange sensation. It creates frustration in the reader. It makes the story dull and lifeless.

I don't mean we need to know about every item in the room or exactly what the characters are wearing--unless it's important. I'm certainly not advocating long. tedious descriptive passages. A word or two will do.


What do you think? How do you work with setting in your work?


  1. Lots of good points. I would also add to be careful about writing about a setting you haven't been to or haven't researched well enough. Reading about a setting that feels fake or flat will often result from writing about a place you don't know.