Going back to my post entitled “Making a list and Checking it Twice”, I will now discuss the fourth fundamental element of writing a story: the Setting. In the past, I used to consider describing a Setting only as a backdrop, nothing more than a physical location where the action took place. Boy was I wrong! After doing some more research, I discovered a large variety of ways the Setting could contribute even further to the story, by adding nuances, moods and information that the other story elements may not be able to convey on their own. I hope I can share this valuable insight with you today.
In works of narrative, the purpose of the Setting is to help identify the “when” and “where” in which the story unfolds. This is accomplished by establishing the historical moment in time and geographic location where a story takes place. The Setting can also help show the mood or context of a story, some of the fundamental components of fiction. It may be identified by the following elements:
- Era: A period in history or a notable moment in time. Describing the Era can be very helpful in establishing a sociological understanding of the characters behaviors and attitudes.
- Time: A specific year, month, season or even time of day. This can be used to help convey moods, suspense or feelings. These can also inform the reader of the passing of time, like if the story began in winter and ended in summer.
- Locale: Place where the characters and actions take place. This can be anything from a neighborhood, city, forest, country, or even planet.
- Geography: This is in relation to the locales appearances, meaning types of scenery such as mountains, islands, houses, cityscapes, space stations, and so on. Plant and animal life also fall into this category.
- Culture: This encompasses everything of a social nature in your setting: laws, politics, government, religion, technology, morales, and so on.
- Weather: Meteorological aspects of the local. This can cover anything from rain, snow, sunshine, fog, hurricanes, droughts and such.
- Objects: Physical items a character can touch, use or refer to. Objects may reveal information on the setting in various ways, with either their importance, their origin, their purpose or their appearance.
The purpose of the Setting may be nothing more than the backdrop for the action, or it may be directly linked to the theme or meaning of the story. It can greatly affect the characters and plot by creating an atmosphere that influences the reader's perception of the work. However, the Setting has many other uses, which can range from motivating the character(s), being a source of conflict, serving as a key piece to a puzzle, or even be portrayed as the main antagonist. The where and when of the story can be just as important as who’s involved and what is happening, as it enhances the suspension of disbelief from the reader.
How describing the Setting is done varies from one writer to the next, as some prefer to go into intricate detail while others offer the barest of clues to the readers. The level of detail wanted is up to the writer, but sketching the Setting can be done with subtle hints, such as mentioning the style of clothing, technology levels, landmarks or music. The Setting can change as a the story progresses, but once it has been established, references to it can be reduced, perhaps just offering the occasional detail to remind the audience where the characters are. These details don’t have to be overdone, but should include enough information in order to ground the characters in the narrative and allow the reader to imagine what is going on.
Settings can appear in various forms within a narrative, each with their own distinct traits. These possibilities can add an interesting twist to any story.
Types of Setting:
- Backdrop Setting: This is when the setting is vague and unimportant for the story. This allows the reader the freedom to imagine, filling in the blanks themselves. This if often used in folk tales, as it helps to convey a universal, timeless feel to the story.
- Integral Setting: This is when the setting is fully described in both time and place. The actions, characters and/or themes are directly influenced by the setting, therefore having some control over the story. This can be divided into further subcategories:
- Antagonist Setting: Characters must resolve conflict created by the setting. This can be portrayed by the character attempting to fight the elements (like a hurricane or flood), being lost in a strange dream like landscape, witnessing a War in progress or trying to survive on an inhospitable alien planet.
- Influential Setting: This setting often shapes the character, allowing them to grow as individuals and define who they are. A story in this setting may show its characters as inhabitants of the locale, demonstrating how their environment has affected (or will affect) their lifestyle. My favorite example is the story of Superman; an alien being raised on a farm, and being taught the important values of life and humanity.
- Symbolic Setting: In this category, the setting is influenced by the story, rather than the story be influenced by the setting. The setting may act like a mirror, reinforcing prevailing moods within the story (like a dark, dingy alleyway in a “Noir” detective story). The setting can use people, objects, situations, or actions in a literal, figurative or suggestive manner to help get the meaning of the story across. In a way, this setting may reflect facets of the characters personality, helping the reader connect to said character.
- Centric Setting: The setting is the story. The story may be about wishing to be at a specific location, wanting to escape that location or exploring said location. The Setting itself is the goal, destination or answer to the story. A good example of this would be The Lord of the Rings, where the entire story revolves around the ring and the journey to take it to Mordor.
Finally, I have learned that setting, be it based on reality or totally made up by the writer, needs to be constructed in a way so that it works for the story, not against it. Characters exist in a particular time and place, which in turn affects their personality, values, attitudes, and even their problems. Therefore characters should be written in a time and place that works for their stories. This is important to remember, because if the writer strays away from the setting, it can break immersion for the audience. Making the setting solid and real to your characters helps make fiction real to the reader.
Hope this post was useful. Until next time!
(edited on 2015-12-04)
(edited on 2015-12-04)