How to Let Your Setting Speak

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I’ve often picked up a book based on its setting. A great setting, for me, means a far flung or exciting place. It’s reason enough to follow a story. Maybe it’s because I love travel that I’m attracted to setting, but many people feel the same way. Others like to get lost in a different world. Whether its here on this planet or in another time or space, setting can become a character unto itself. Actually, saying that is practically a cliché—so what does it mean? In this post, I’ll help you see how to let your setting speak.

How Does Setting Connect to Plot

Plot drives all stories forward, so in order for setting to take center stage in your book, it needs to contribute to the plot. Probably the most important question of all is: why did you set your book where you did? And next, how will it contribute to the inciting event in your book? Remember, the inciting event is what puts the actions of your book into motion. This is your protagonist’s call to adventure. Where does that adventure take her? Why is it there and not somewhere else? What are the inherent challenges of being there?

A good setting is not just a backdrop—it’s a symbol, enabler, or obstacle to what lies ahead. Think hard about creating or identifying a world that will match and challenge the tasks, skills, and challenges that your protagonist will face.

What is Your Setting’s Backstory?

To really understand your setting, dig into its backstory the way you would a character’s. Although setting isn’t literally a character, taking the time to think deeply about how it will work can help your writing. If you think about who inhabits this setting, how educated or wealthy (or not) they are, what geographical boundaries are present, and best of all—what secrets they keep. Writing a science fiction or fantasy story and need some help building your world? Check out this article which focuses on otherworldly settings: World Building Basics.

Secrets, as you know, are the lifeblood of fiction. They make everything juicy, and they inherently make readers want to turn pages. What secrets might your setting keep that inhibits your protagonist from getting what she wants? How can you use this to your advantage?

Examples

The easiest way to explain how to make your setting speak is to show an example. Let’s take the classic Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It takes place in multiple settings and in each place, the specific environment itself provides challenges, advantages, and plot twists that occurred because of where it was located. Who could forget the masterful opening sequence? There, Indiana must go through a literal gauntlet in a cave in South America in order to retrieve a priceless artifact. The setting lets us see Indiana’s bravery and derring-do. We see he’s brave, not picky about creature comforts, knowledgeable about prehistory, and nearly reckless in his efforts. The setting provides the opportunity for Indiana to prove his mettle.

By the same token, a more serene and laid-back locale, like small town Iowa in the Bridges of Madison County meets the same needs, albeit of a very different movie. This story occurs in rural America when a National Geographic photographer meets a lonely middle-aged woman who shows him the county’s covered bridges for an assignment. As they travel through the sun-streaked fields and farmland, they get to know each other, and they fall in love. Without this place, would the two have ever connected?

As you work to include setting in your own stories, look to examples you connect with and see if you can’t emphasize the useful element of setting in your book.  

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

2 Comments

  1. I admire writers who describe their surroundings colorfully, like describing the plink plink sound of raindrops, the crackling of a cozy fire etc. My writing is not rife with colorful depictions; however I do try establish at least some detail of scenes, for example I would say Bob walked down the steps that led to the basement it was dark except for the light from a small table lamp, I’m sure many writers would find a more flowery description .That’s what separates gifted writers from not so talented writers like me.

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