Why Setting Matters

My favorite part of any story, and the reason I love fiction so much, is setting. Yet compared to character and plot, it rarely sees the spotlight. Relatable characters will draw the audience into the story. An interesting plot will give the audience a reason to care. Both are built on the foundation of a strong setting. The world shaped and trained these people. Culture and circumstances enable those events.

Setting-Driven Stories

The problem with Setting-Driven stories is the apparent “lack of story”. This perpsective is inherently flawed; it is like saying a plot-driven story has no characters or vice versa. Consider The Odyssey, a book about simple characters along for the ride on a simple story of “Yes, but/No, and” misadventures. Why is this story so popular, so timeless? Because the adventure itself serves to guide the audience through the world and explore the micro-settings nested inside of the world of Greek lore. The world calls out to be explored.

A more contemporary example to consider is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. What starts off as a simple story with a simple cast quickly plummets down a rabbit hole of worldbuilding so well-constructed, so believable, that it birthed a new genre. Similar credit is due to H. P. Lovecraft, Gene Roddenberry, and Hayao Miyazaki.

Believable, immersive settings make a story feel real. A poorly-constructed setting, however, can spoil a story. This is equally as true for stories set in real life as well as any distant or magical world, past or future. With this post, I will be giving advice for how to invent a believable setting and the types of mistakes that can disturb a reader’s immersion and stand in the way of a believable story.

Like all writing advice, this information is intended to encourage you to ask questions about stories. Feel free to directly contradict this advice if it will make the story stronger, but do so intentionally.

Setting And The Premise

All stories have a premise; often this has more to do with a plot scenario or a character conflict (or both). Consider:

  • How does the setting support the premise?
  • What effect does the premise have on the setting?

The answers to these questions are vital in establishing a strong setting. Learn to ask them of any book you read, any show or movie you watch. Ask them when you cannot set down such a compelling book and discover how the author crafted such a complete, believable world. And more importantly, ask them right before you give up on a book that lost your interest. You may find more often than not that the setting is in large part responsible.

As this is my first public blog post, I will refrain from negatively criticising other works. However, I do wish to explore these topics in more detail on certain stories, and in those cases, holding back may no longer be appropriate.

Settings That Support The Premise

It is no accident that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a book about adultery and sin, is set in a Puritan settlement in the 1600’s. Imagine swapping the settings for Disney’s Toy Story and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. When and where the stories happen is just as much of the story, if not more, than characters or plot.

Consider Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight: Vampires live in the contemporary world in hiding and participate in regular human lifestyles. How does the setting support the premise? The vampires’ identities are exposed in the sunlight, so in order for this world to be believable at all, the story must happen somewhere with relatively low sunlight. This is a good start, but so many places and times meet this criteria. What else is important?

Forks, Washington averages over 200 days of precipitation per year, perfect for vampires who fear the sunlight. It also features a number of open areas in the mountains to explore the special abilities of vampires such as their speed and stealth. However, it is not so far north that it might alienate the culture from American young adults who might come from dryer, more temperate regions. As a smaller town, it is easier to believe that more people would actually notice the presence of a “strange” family and care about their interactions with a normal girl.

I imagine Stephenie Meyer had more criteria for what kind of setting to use for her story. Her choice of setting demonstrates she knew what kind of story she wanted to tell.

Pitfalls:

Choosing a familiar setting because it is familiar.

There is nothing wrong with having stories in a familiar setting, but the choice should be intentional. It should take place there because that setting makes sense, not because it conveniently minimized research needs.

Forcing the story into the wrong setting.

I cannot say how many high fantasy novels I picked up, only to find the plot and characters rarely interacting with the magic system or that the different races have little to do with the main conflict of the story.

Letting the genre pick the setting for you.

Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo was a Samurai film imitating Western films, set in Japan near the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but that did not stop it from being adapted into America as A Fistful Of Dollars or even as an episode of Star Trek: Next Generation. All of these versions are Western films.

Premises That Affect The Setting

What is the interesting part of the premise? What is the “twist”, the “unique perspective”, or the “central conflict”? A strong premise must remain consistent in all aspects of the story, lest it lose focus. Never allow your reader forget the premise of your book. A setting too rigid for its premise is doomed to distract. Lois Lowry’s The Giver tells the reader little of its setting because the premise does not permit it. Exposition in this story is limited in large part to the memories given to the main character, memories far more familiar to our world. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Hogwarts is hidden away somewhere in a remote area in Scotland, behind a magical barrier in between two train platforms. Diagon Alley is blocked by a magical passcode.

Brandon Sanderson’s The Way Of Kings features a world which is constantly ravaged by highstorms strong enough to tear up the land and toss boulder into the sky. How might the setting need to accomodate the premise? Most obviously would be the rocky world. Cities must either be built into the ground or in formations that minimize the danger of the highstorms. The earth is broken by giant chasms.

Beyond the geographical setting, also consider the cultural setting. How are the lives of everyday people affected by the premise? The highstorms are powerful, believed to be the will of the gods. The highstorms are sporadic and unpredictable; this causes the spiritual to assign a special sin against telling the future, which in turn affects how gambling games are played. The highstorms are mysterious, driving a unique magic system. Money gets its official “stamp of credibility” by glowing when left out in a highstorm. Even the grass had to learn how to hide in the ground to survive.

Pitfalls:

A setting should not undermine the purpose of the story.

Not everything in the world will necessarily be relevant to the premise, but some might challenge the very purpose of the story. The Hobbit is a journey of a man leaving a familiar world and venturing into the unknown and learning to understand cultures that differ wildly from his own. How strange might it be if the Dwarves, who closely resemble Hobbits, took him to a town just like the Shire? Nothing in the world should resemble home in The Hobbit except home itself.

Exposing too much setting.

Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory teaches that readers only need to know what is relevant to the characters, plot, or premise. Whether fantastical or based in reality, you will want to be able to answer questions about cosmology, topology, sciences, flora, fauna, geography, weather, slang, honorifics, economy, landmarks, laws, architecture, religion, courtship, politics, government, social and economic classes, ingrained prejudices, human rights, customs, taboos, philosophy, morals, music, fashion, gender roles, technology, food, language, folklore, history, calendars, and festivals.

This list is not exhaustive. Please do not answer all of them at once. Part of the fun as a reader is trying to fill in these gaps with their own understanding of how the world works, and hundreds of pages dedicated to worldbuilding can distract from the story.

Leaving out important details.

You should not need to tell the reader which year your historical fiction takes place. Readers should not require any names to figure out in which country the characters live. Fictionalized settings need to be extra careful about this. Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder and the Flintstones’ Car have different capabilities and limitations. Chinese and Western dragons are distinct both in anatomy and cultural interpretation. If the reader must guess which to imagine, finding a contrary detail 100 pages later will cause dissonance, resulting in a world that feels inconsistent even when it is not.

TL;DR

Setting is the foundation of a story, not just context for characters and plot. Mess it up and the world feels fake. Execute well and it convinces the audience that a story is real.

I have so much more to say about setting; how the target audience directs setting choices, how settings are stories themselves, and how a setting might influence politics or lifestyles. Expect more on settings in the coming months. What kinds of settings intrigue you? What formulas or design choices about settings might tempt you to put the book away or quit watching that TV show?

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