I've wanted to write an article about setting for what seems like ages. I've wanted to talk about what setting is and how it can be used to increase character identification and, as a result, narrative drive (/suspense).
I wanted this to be one article--I really really did!--but it grew into two. In the first part, here, I talk about what narrative drive is and why we, writers, should care. In the second part, I talk about how to use setting to hook into a character and help make them three-dimensional.
What Is Setting?
For the purposes of this article, here's how I define setting:
The setting of a story concerns the time, place and circumstances of the narrative.
That definition comes from tvtropes.org, Settings.
I looked at a few different definitions, but that one came closest to how I think of it. Also, it's simple. Simple is good (but often not easy).
Before I go any further, I'd like to take a quick look at something I'm going to revisit toward the end of this article: Why should a writer care about setting? What does it do in a story? What is its function, its role? How does it help the writer accomplish his/her ends/goal of evoking emotion in readers?
The Goal of Storytelling
The goal of storytelling--this is what I think--is to invoke, or possibly provoke, emotions in an audience. In the case of writers, these are our readers.
How does narrative setting help a writer reach this goal? In other words, what is its function?
The Functions of Setting
1. The setting helps establish the mood of the story.
2. The setting reflects the theme.
3. The setting aids in character explication and reader identification.
Before we can explore each of these aspects of setting--how a writer can exploit setting to aid in character identification--we need to take a closer look at what setting is.
The Elements of Setting
- Historical epoch: Does the story take place in the past? During what we now call the industrial revolution? At the height of the Roman Empire? At some point in the undreamt of future? Or perhaps the story is a strange, twisted, far-earth scenario?
- Seasons: What time of year is it? Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter? If this is a fictional world, does it have seasons?
- Day: What time of day is it? Day? Night? Twilight? The witching hour?
- Flow of time: Is there anything unusual about the flow of time in your narrative? Is your story written as a stream of consciousness? Does your novel employ time-jumps to convey the story?
Where does your story take place?
If your world is fictional, what is its geography? Is it an unexplored wilderness or is it well populated? If your world is not one great wilderness, does the story take place in a town? A city? A jungle? A forest? Is the place barren? Lush? Isolated? Densely populated?
Is there much water nearby? Is the air dry or wet? Is there snow at Christmas time? Does it matter? What sports or hobbies could a person easily engage in given the features of the area? Snowboarding? Skiing? Swimming? Surfing? What sports couldn't your characters do? (Could your characters swim without risking hypothermia in December?)
Setting as it relates to each scene
I've touched on some of this information, above, but now we get specific.
- What time of day is it? Is it day? Night? Twilight? The witching hour? Lunch? Dinner? What associations do the main characters have about this time? What memories might it provoke? For instance, a character might wake during the witching hour and remember a nightmare they had as a child.
- Indoors? Outdoors?
- Outdoors: What's the weather like? Is the sun hidden behind clouds making it dark as night? Is it nighttime, yet lightning flashes make the landscape bright as day? Is it snowing? Raining? Sunny with the unbearable heat of the desert beating down? Are your characters in the Antarctic? Are they isolated by the distance and the unbearable, bitter, cold?
- Indoors: What are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. If man-made, were they invited here? Does the character find the place comfortable?
The room could be lavish and yet uncomfortable if the character is too worried about ruining expensive furnishings to use them. This would be one way to show character, to demonstrate what kind of environment they were used to.
That's it! Stay tuned for part two where I'll talk about how to use narrative setting to make characters more interesting.
Photo credit: "Catwoman Dark" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.