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will look at the broader elements of storytelling, character, plot and theme, and setting. Today we’ll talk about setting. In simplest terms, setting is where your story takes place, and it can be as broad as a world or as small as a room. The most important things about setting is to make it unique, real and logical, no matter if it is the most accurate and realistic settings or the most outlandish fantasy. These qualifiers are so important, I’m going to spend some time on each. We’ll talk about developing a hook, and setting is a large part of hook. If we think about some of our greatest stories, anything from Lord of the Rings, Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Tale of Two Cities, anything, and try to extract them from their settings, you’ll find that their settings are unique, genre-defining and absolutely intrinsic to the story. The settings bring you into the story, and brings your mind back to the stories, and that’s hook. That gets you attention. Look at what is happening with James Cameron’s Avatar right now. Probably 50% of the marketing talks about the world of Avatar. That’s hook that is bringing people to websites, to the theatres. Any kind of story begins with laying out the setting, not necessarily in the inspiration, but in the telling. Even every news story begins with when and where. But setting shouldn’t be overlooked as a significant storytelling device. If you doubt that setting is just a detail you throw in, think about one of our most prolific storytelling devices these days, reality TV. Really, haven’t we gotten past the characters of these shows, so that they are incidentally entertaining only so much as we stick them into a new place? Survivor Fiji, B-List Celebrities in a Jungle! Ghost hunters in an old landmark! Think about those shows that are about jobs. Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers, the lumberjacks, Pawn Stars, it’s all of the same characters in a different place, if we get right down to it. These shows rely on setting to be as entertaining as their characters. It is the only way to get
through the noise of the next show that is coming out. There’s a lot of noise to get through these days for any project. Let me give you an example. I have a new project, endoftheworldtimes.com. We have four talented young writers and several more preparing to come on-line creating a post-apocalyptic world as our characters explore it. I submitted this site to io9.com, and we didn’t make it onto the blog, even though I think the end of the world Times is quite good. I mean, we have a zombiepocalypse in Haiti, cannibal mushroom farmers in Ted Williams Tunnel, and a garbage mine collapse. All that, and we didn’t make the cut. The guy who made lego spaceships in the shape of the alphabet did, but a site that is creating an alternate future built from scratch didn’t. That’s the noise you have to get through, guys with legos. Please, if you want to help a project out, mention it to io9.com. We’d appreciate it. Otherwise you get more Legos. But enough griping. Setting is in its simplest definition, the place and time your story occurs in. This seems pretty mundane when you get down to it, but in truth, setting is often mundane. Realism- the dominant literary movement of the 20th century and one I happen to despise with a passion unknown for any particular school of art save hip-hop, used the mundane to tell stories. Of Mice and Men, and many of Steinbeck’s stories were told on farms, poor communities, very mundane places. Hemingway too, set many stories in mundane common places, A Clean, WellLighted Place is set in a place as mundane as a street cafe. The story then must make these places interesting. I remember a story I read from school that was set in a fishery along the Atlantic shore. The story featured a man and woman struggling to have children while at work he opened up a fish to see thousands of eggs. This fishery is probably very boring to a fisherman, but very interesting for an eskimo. So, one man’s mundane is another’s adventure. But let’s face it, these are mundane stories set in mundane places. I’ve read the same story I think with Steinbeck using cut flowers as the symbol for children, and I think Flannery O’Connor wrote a story about a goose’s eggs and the farmhand who can’t count. I may have the writers wrong, it was a long time ago, but I
remember the stories. What makes these stories unique is their setting. As a writer finds a unique setting for the trope, it is fresh and once again publishable. A mundane setting also means you have to work that much harder as a writer, but we’re not afraid of work, now are we? Of course, that story could be just as well told by Bradbury on Mars, or by Arthur C Clarke on a stopover for an interstellar colony ship. These novel settings can provide a unique twist on a story, the Clarke story I’m thinking of is in a book that isn’t near me, but the idea was if the traveler fathered a child with a woman he met on a stopover planet, that child would live and die and several generations would pass by the next time he was likely to wake up from hypersleep. From this example. We see how an old story finds new life by setting. And of course, you can make the most ultimately mundane place as unfamiliar as possible very creatively and effectively. Think of Ray Bradbury’s house that goes on with its automatic processes even though all of the humans have died. Or Samuel Beckett’s tree that is the setting for Waiting for Godot. These settings are quite strange when we put them through the minds of great writers like these. But let’s move beyond thinking of setting as just a place. Setting is culture as well. The people in the place. Rick’s Cafe American wouldnot be what it is without a cast of dubious background characters hanging around, and even if those people never pop their heads out of the background, they are described, your characters must maneuver around them, through them. They may be window dressing, but if Rick’s Cafe American was empty, you wouldn’t have a convincing story. If we want to think of writing as producing a convincing reality, setting has to be convincing as well. What makes the setting convincing is details, and so the people, colors, smells, sounds, things. A room is a room, but the room with a huge fireplace, paintings on the wall, an ornate baroque desk, and all the trappings tells you who or what might pass through that room. Most likely not a peasant unless there’s a revolution on. Which brings me to another point. Your setting needs internal logic. We’ll talk about this quite a bit when we get to world building. For now some of the basics.
For internal logic to work with the setting, the people, objects, cultures, traditions, colors textures, smells, cuisine, technology, climate, wildlife, everything all have to mesh into a logical whole. No cold-blooded animals on the ice planet of Hoth, no French Haute cuisine in the outback. There is a lot of asking why when establishing a setting like this. Why does African cuisine have a lot of spices? To fight intestinal parasites. Okay, now that’s logical. Certainly a better answer than, it just is. The more unusual your setting, the more work you have to do in thinking through its logic. But I want to get past setting as a place. You can make a setting without a place, per se, and move more towards setting as the things around your story. Think about Tim O’Brien’s The Things we Carried. Much of the setting of that is objects moving through a ubiquitous and almost generic wartime jungle. In this case, I’d argue to a certain extent, the things they carry, aside from being character details, are the personal settings the characters make for themselves. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but the point is, the characters carry their setting with them. If we translate this into another world, the setting becomes the giant robot suit somebody experiences the world through, the regiment they serve in, the things they imagine to replace the world that is too much for them to take at the moment. The things they carry are the environments they create for themselves. Within the bounds of the story it could be an imaginary environment, but it is still a setting. It is the environment a character creates for himself, and so therefore is a part of the reality of the story. Hence, the unreliable narrator, and deceptive environment he creates to tell his story, ala The Usual Suspects. In this case, the setting is an artificial construct of the character. This allows us to carry a setting with us through unfamiliar territories, and reflects on the character and on the real setting. We can carry this a bit further by thinking about a construct of the paranormal. Two examples of this might be the what a mentally unstable character might perceive. Because the environment we perceive is the environment that is real for us, the artificial setting is no less real. I play with this a bit in The Hidden, and more in Tev. In Tev, which you can read on
mindofbryan.com or hear on the Horror Addicts Podcast, a man falls in his basement, and possibly due to the gas leak and bump to his head hallucinates a spot that starts talking to him, or maybe that spot is actually there. The reality of the story depend on whose eyes you are looking through. The unreliable narrator must have an unreliable interpretation of his setting, but it is no less real for him. Another example of this is the haunted house. In Richard Matheson’s Hell House, there’s a group of people who go into an abandoned mansion with a history of occult rites, and the reader spends a good deal of time wondering what paranormal occurrences are supernatural but real, and what are simply perceived by suggestion within the character’s minds. There’s problems with settings as we see them, though. One is the generic setting. This is a trap lazy writers will fall into. If you wanted to write Of Mice and Men, you can’t just set it on a farm. I’m a big fan of doing the work. If you’re a writer, lesson one is: do the work. Make a map of your area, lay the farm on it. Know exactly where all the buildings lie, what they look like, what the view out of every window looks like. Refer to that map as you write. Second, the single ecosystem problem, aka The Star Wars ________ planet. We know about Hoth, the ice planet, and Dagoba, the swamp planet, and Endor the forest moon, and Coruscant, the planet of high rents. Your readers will see this as laziness, too. We see through you, George Lucas. Third, planets don’t have a uniform political system, Star Trek. Imagine a world with no political diversity, we’re all Republicans or all Democrats. We don’t need a congress, really, because we all follow the same rules as a personal way of life. We don’t have any wars. What a boring planet. Don’t think this applies only to sci-fi or fantasy. Imagine our example of the day, Rick’s Cafe American without so many groups looking out for their own interests. No fun at all, a bunch of guys hanging around singing drinking songs. Now there is one other way to look at setting, and that is as a character. If you want to look at a character as anything that acts on your main character. One of the oldest conflicts is “man vs. wild”. In this case, your setting (hopefully
extremely detailed) is your antagonist. You can see these stories play out in Man vs. Wild and Survivorman, if you want an example from your everyday entertainment offerings, though there have been many books over the years dealing with this as a conflict as well. Setting in narrative has evolved over the centuries. According to Aristotle’s unities, the entire story must take place in one setting, and anything that happens elsewhere is brought to the stage by messengers. This carried over into Shakespeare’s day to a certain extent, but by this time, setting had become fluid. Think about Shakespeare’s stage for setting. There was little that could be done to change the setting, and certainly no narrative prose to lay out the setting for the audience, and so setting had to be established by dialogue. When you think of some famous lines, they are actually lines that establish the setting of the scene. “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” In so few words, we establish the time (morning) and the setting (inside). Or Hamlet: Ber. Who’s there? Fran. Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself. Ber. Long live the king! Fran. Bernardo? Ber. He. Fran. You come most carefully upon your hour. Ber. ’Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco. Fran. For this relief much thanks; ’tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart. Ber. Have you had quiet guard?
Fran. Not a mouse stirring. Ber. Well, good-night. Let’s see what this establishes setting wise. It is night, it is quiet, we’re in a king’s residence. It is cold. This scene does so much to establish not just setting, but tone and direction. One of the habits we get into as we write long for prose, novellas and novels, is to start a scene with a description of the setting then move onto dialog and action. Your reader and editor will pick up on this. Think of every time you heard of a scene start off with “John sat in his office, a small oscillating fan occasionally promising to make a dent in the heat and humidity. A knock came at the door. ‘Get the hell out of my office,’ John screamed.” We can start this scene off just as easily with, “Get the hell out of my office,” John screamed to the knock at his door. You can lay the groundwork in previous scenes, or you can use details to set this up for you. I’m a big detail writer. Every aspect of good storytelling is about the details. In the case of setting, we need to describe the everything to every sense as much as is needed or possible. We can certainly go overboard, but the more detailed your setting, the more convincing the reality of the setting and the story. So that’s a brief look at setting. If you’re considering writing, and you have your unique, interesting and detailed setting, you can now move onto the next basic, plot theme, or character. Don’t know which one I’ll pick up on next. If you want any say in the matter, send me a comment.
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