Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Setting: The Opportunity You Don’t Know You’re Missing

Photo credit: Bethann Powell |

That dark and stormy night is kind of important, yet setting is seldomly and shallowly discussed. Underestimating its contribution robs your story. Ask yourself: are you missing opportunities to enrich your story through setting? ♦ 

Think of your three most beloved stories. The three stories that have remained with you, that told you something worth hearing about what it’s like to be human and what it’s like, in the words of Scott Russell Sanders, “to speak memorably to strangers.” With little to no difficulty, I’m guessing you can give a brief description of their aspects—the names of the protagonists, the central conflicts or the protagonists’ main goals, and, yes, the settings of those stories. (Go ahead. Test yourself.) You can probably even describe the smaller settings that are home to your favorite moments.
       True, that these stories are in your top three means you likely remember more about them than you do about stories towards which you feel nothing. Even so, I’m willing to bet you've remembered the setting in large part because the writers remembered the setting too.

Setting at the Macro Level

At its broadest, setting is a geographical location, a physical landscape, and a period in time—say, a West Coast town nested in forested mountains in the year 2001. Even with these general details decided, many aspects of the story have been touched. Through three selections, we have already dictated:

the culture of the time and place combined, and with it…
        its traditions
        its history
        its attitudes and values
        its aesthetic style, including architecture and personal styles
        its technology
        its media, including its music, entertainment, and art forms
the way our characters speak
what is pragmatically possible and what is not

This macro-setting also affects the story mood and the writing style. A sprawling metropolis of shimmering skyscrapers simply doesn't feel the same as a sleepy town with one gas station and storefronts dating back to the 1800s. The seaside simply doesn't feel the same as the desert. The '80s in America simply don't feel the same as the '50s in America. A lush writing style may suit a lush environment but would be ill-suited for somewhere sleek.
       Consider the example of my all-time favorite novel: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It passes the challenge I presented earlier; I remember the macro-setting vividly. Fitzgerald presents us with the early Roaring Twenties, a time of economic boom that both blessed and cursed many Americans with exorbitant wealth. With that wealth came a dangerous sense of invincibility and an indulgence in frivolous spending and flashy mingling. Prohibition led to rampant criminal activity. Although Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby in 1925, when we look back on the story, its naïve glamour seems even more fragile, even more tragic, in light of the crash of ’29.
        This macro-setting is perfect for the conflicts that Fitzgerald explores. Gatsby is hopelessly in love with Daisy Buchanan, a now-married woman, based on memories of their romantic past. He idealizes her, failing to see her for the selfish and shallow woman she is. Daisy is as insipid as the ways that the people in this novel pass their time and fill their conversation, yet everyone refuses to blink the glitter from their eyes. She is a symbol of undying hope, the promise of eternal contentment and complete fulfillment for Gatsby. Such wealth, whether material or spiritual, surely resists death in the eyes of Gatsby and the greater culture. In my favorite line in the novel, he tells his friend Nick, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” His aspirations—impossible. His beliefs—childish. But in 1922 America, disappointment and want have, seemingly, been slain.

Setting at the Micro Level

Setting is a region of the globe, a region of a nation, a region of a state or province or territory. Setting belongs to a century, a decade, and a year. We do not consciously live by such sweeping details, however, day in and day out. We occupy much smaller spaces, pass through much smaller units of time. The environments we most recognize as ours are immediate, ever changing, and—in many cases—self-selected and self-formed.
          What I’m referring to here is micro-setting.
        Let’s return to our West Coast town. It’s surrounded by forest and mountains, and the year is 2001. This town has its own subculture, its own manners of speech, its own logistics within the broader ones of the twenty-first century, the year 2001, the U.S., and the West Coast. Naturally, the micro-setting also leaves its mark on the story mood, as well as the writing style.
       But that isn't all. If we zoom in on our protagonist’s town, recognizing it as a smaller setting within the greater context, we discover more setting aspects to explore:

his neighborhood
his residence
the rooms of his residence
his vehicle
his school or workplace
his haunts

These places are relatively stable and may very well be within our protagonist’s complete or partial control. Other aspects of this micro-setting are not so compliant:

the climate, and the weather for a given day
the season
the month
the day
the time of day

While the macro-setting is something to tuck away in the back of your mind as you write, the micro-setting demands far more attention. Why? The micro-setting is where scenes happen.
       Whenever you've started or finished a scene, think about the sensory details and setting descriptors you've included. For a terrifying scene, could you turn up the terror by setting the scene in the dead of night—in an otherwise empty house—a recently bought house that is still largely a stranger—a house that is alone in the woods? How about outside on a hot summer night, sweat already bursting from our protagonist’s pores even before his anxiety seeps in—and while he’s on a swing at the playground of his old elementary school no less? The innocence could contrast in a horrifying way with the unsettling element to present itself. Could your lonely protagonist, feeling isolated from others, live not in the suburbs, but in a farmhouse—in the countryside—hunched on a hill—the nearest neighbor five miles away? Or, maybe you could better show his pain by dropping him instead into a cramped apartment in the pulsating heart of a major city. The irony of being immersed in a crowd yet feeling alone could make his anguish even more acute.
       Fitzgerald chose his micro-settings with deliberation. Tom Buchanan doesn't confront Gatsby about his affair with Daisy on a cool spring morning. Nor does he confront Gatsby while lounging inside his expansive lakeside mansion. No, Fitzgerald gives these characters a sweltering summer afternoon. He moves these characters into the bustling city, then into a cramped hotel room with only one window to provide any ventilation—and this room is high over the city, no less! By dialing up the literal heat, Fitzgerald dials up the metaphorical heat. By minimizing the literal space, Fitzgerald minimizes the psychological space. The micro-setting feeds the mounting friction and aggression between Tom and Gatsby.
           It’s a gorgeous trick, and it isn't only his to call on.
          If a story of yours is working its hardest, it cannot be transplanted to a different setting—micro or macro—and retain its basic identity. That is the take-home message. Setting is not a static, painted backdrop behind your characters, but a dynamic climate they move within, both at the micro and the macro levels.
         Further your work’s purpose. Pack a harder punch. Take a step back from your story—in fact, from each of its scenes—and ask yourself, “Do I have a missed opportunity here?” Could you use setting with more awareness to amplify a given effect? To illuminate the conflict? To subvert it? To present it with ironic contrast?
          The answer is probably yes.

Author’s note: Want to know more about making the most of setting? Check out Setting by the late Jack M. Bickham. This book transformed the way I think about setting. I recommend it to all writers.
  • About the Author
    Caroline H. Browning is in her third year as a Psychology-Creative Writing double major at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She attended Antioch Writers’ Workshop Young Writers Program in 2011 and owes it to finding her two best friends—both writers—and a kickass mentor named Katrina Kittle. She has a novel underway (still) but can’t complain.

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