What are some of the most classic story openers of all time?
“It was a dark and stormy night.” –Edward Buwler-Lytton
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” –Charles Dickens
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” –Star Wars
There’s something so natural with starting a story with the when and the place—in other words, the setting. But setting has much more powerful of a role to play in a novel than just the “when and the place.” In fact, setting can do a lot to drive your plot forward. If character arc is the obvious hero to plot movement, setting is the unsung hero. Let’s break it down.
Ground Your World with the Setting
Often when we talk about characters and plot, we focus a lot of on metaphysical things like emotion, conflict, and stakes. But story needs a lot more than metaphysics for it to be appealing to readers. Story needs reality. And the best way to get that reality? The story world, or setting.
The setting of a story establishes not only a physical reality and place that readers can visualize, but it also gives a great deal of information about the characters of the book. In fact, when used effectively, the setting speaks to the emotional state and point of view of the characters. Think about it this way:
A family is walking through an older, 50’s style home that hasn’t been updated and has been put on the market for sale. Their reaction of that home, the way they perceive it, the manners in which they interact with it will be unique to their situation. They probably will see the carpets as dingy. The wallpaper as gross. The weird tile colors as needing to be replaced with hardwood flooring.
Now let’s have the person who owned that home walk through it—an elderly woman in her 90s. She can picture the time her son spilled milk from his bottle onto it. She remembers lovingly papering those walls and scrubbing the crayon from it when her grandchildren came to visit. Those tiles remind her of the night she spent in the bathroom beside her sick husband.
Totally different perceptions, right? Same house—different points of view. Each equally compelling to the characters in the space.
Channel Your Tone
Because of setting’s ability to communicate point of view and emotion, it has a huge impact on the overall tone of your story. What better way to make a horror story foreboding than to pick up on some minor, creepy detail in what otherwise seems like a perfectly normal place? Ever notice how in Bond movies, whenever there is a chase scene, James Bond and the men chasing him often seem to be in the most crowded places imaginable?
Because the crowdedness of the space causes tension. A car barreling down at James Bond is less compelling in the middle of the desert than it is in a tight, crowded marketplace where there’s nowhere to go. The setting creates urgency and claustrophobia.
In the same way, a hot, angry sun can warn the reader that a tempest in the story world is coming. Weather in setting can particularly drive plot because of the impact it has on tone, warning the reader that something bad is coming, or that peace will soon be interrupted.
Give Readers the Unexpected
Details of setting can also be used in unexpected ways to subvert reader expectations or to present plot twists that readers don’t see coming. A great example of this is Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. Without completely spoiling the plot for those of you who haven’t read it, the setting works hand-in-hand with the characters to provide an unreliable narrative.
Because setting can be so dynamic and based in perception, it’s entirely possible to present a setting one way, when the “truth” is quite different. That provides a lot of opportunity for plot twists and jaw-dropping moments.
So don’t forget that setting is a valuable part of your writer’s toolbox for plot—using it effectively can make a world of difference (pun intended).