Sunday, March 7, 2010

Does Setting Inform Your Story? It Should.

I never thought I was one of those writers who cared especially much about setting. Give me amazing characters and plot all the way, baby. Who needs to wax poetic about the trees, or the concrete slabs of sidewalk your characters are walking around and on or if it's raining or sunny outside? Really, doesn't having to describe your setting just get in the way of telling the story?

Well, like most things in writing, if it's done well setting should be as equally important to characters, plot and story.

After writing a few stories I've learned that when, where and how setting is established can really add an extra layer of depth to the tale you're telling. Take ILLEGALLY BLONDE, for example. Sure it's set in Portugal because the plot demands it but the time of year, the weather (hot, dry rainless conditions)and how my character reacts to the place she's in adds drama and complications to her journey. How she sees the place at the beginning and end of the story - how that vision of the setting changes - mirrors her change and growth. What the weather does becomes part of the climax of the story.

The same thing happened in the next book I wrote. This one is set in Buffalo, New York in the middle of winter - March Break to be exact. A cold, miserable expanse of cold and white. This time the setting needed to happen during winter for a very important plot element - someone getting lost. But I could have had that person be lost in the summer, or spring or fall. But winter - especially unforgiving upper New York winters - are much more dramatic and create an added layer of complication to the events. I was also able to use symbols and wording that reflected the cold (I discovered the theme of 'blanketing' someone with comfort or leaving them without was very much reflected when I described the snow and landscape through which my characters travelled).

But, like everything in writing, there is moderation when detailing the setting. For me, it has to come with a light touch. I don't spend paragraphs describing a lake or a snowfall or a raging fire. That bores the bejeezus out of me. But there must be enough there to ground the reader in the place - to make it feel like it's a small village in Portugal, or a suburban town in the middle of winter. But what's even more important is how you use that setting to explore or expand upon the themes of the story. And if it is done well, the reader won't even realize those reflections at all.

Hmm. Maybe that's why I'm struggling a bit with this WIP right now. I really need to go back and discover why I set the story in this particular place at this particular time. I need to ground myself in the story. And once you're grounded you can take off to so many amazing, unexpected places...


  1. Great post! Setting is something I struggle with. I tend to underdescribe because I'm going for that light touch you talk about, but often it's too light. I usually have to go back and sprinkle more in. What you said about grounding story in setting is SO important; I find that I'm much more successful at doing this in fantasy settings than in more real-life settings.

  2. I received a very great rejection from an agent that said setting should be another character in the book. As a reader, I tend to skim descriptive paragraphs, so I'm like Anna, little too light on description. I'm currently trying to put more in and resubmit to the agent. Good post.
    hey, your book comes out soon!

  3. My critique partner also tells me I go too light on setting. I usually add more in the revisions, but what I include is important. No flowers for flower's sake!

  4. Hi Anna: I'm with you on trying to find that delicate balance between light and descriptive enough to make the setting something useful in the book. I guess fantasy settings need so much world building you can't help but create that kind of depth to it.

    Hi TerryLynn! Now that's a helpful rejection! Good luck on the resubmission to the agent. And yes - GULP - IB comes out in less than a month now. Eeek!

    Hi Nora: I guess we're not alone in going light on the setting. But it is something that can definitely be fixed during revisions!

  5. Description whether of setting or people is one of the most important tools we have. Do it well, and your characters are 3 dimensional. Do it too much or poorly - and the story sounds forced and the characters flat. It is a hard balance and one I'm constantly working on!