Setting, or the Monster Named

Photo by Bui Bao on Unsplash

At the start of every story, a monster hides in a closet eager for the narrative to get close enough to claw through its chest cavity and rip its soul out. That monster’s name? They call her, Setting. This baby’s got teeth and will kill your story if not handled right.

What Are We Looking At?

The essential elements of writing are plot, character, and setting. Those are the three pillars upon which fiction is balanced. Remove one of those three, and the whole thing falls, the books fail, the reviews tank, and there we are, crying into a bottle, wondering where it all went wrong.

Setting is more than just a place. It’s more than just a backdrop. It’s a combination of every tangible difference (location, time, socio-political values, religion… you name it!) that can affect the characters or plot. Let’s look at this another way: if character is the paint, and plot is the brushstroke, then setting is the canvas that both require to exist. This canvas just happens to be three dimensional. Setting has life. It has a smell and a taste. It makes a sound and touches our skin. You just need to capture that.

Where Do We Start?

Well, we probably start at the beginning, just like everything else we create. The question isn’t what a story is about? It’s more where the story is located. Let’s take a look at Smalltown, America, home of the prototypical bad guy, and the things that made him that way. Smalltown is where the story takes place, but what about it makes this a proper setting? We need to add some flavor to this thing, and the details are where we start. Maybe Smalltown doesn’t have much of a community and is impoverished. Jobs are hard to come by, and the people are angry at having to fight for everything. Maybe it’s the 1950s, and not 2020, which will now change how the people react to the world around them and how they are going to survive. Are we looking at the summer months, hot and humid, just like the temperament of the place? Or is this a winter story, where isolation reigns? Details, details, details. Every little one matters.

You Can Write Something That You Don’t Know

Old school advice is to write what you know, avoid what you don’t. It makes sense if you are writing in the pre-internet world. But now we can travel anywhere we want and explore cultures that we could never have done before. Feel like going to Paris? It’s a mouse click away. How about Shanghai? We have videos and a street view we can study. The point is, do your research! If you don’t know something about the setting, then look it up! We have the ability to visit anywhere, so there is no excuse to get lazy about it.

Wrapping It Up

As you can tell, the only way to kill the monster in our closet is to give it details. Don’t tell me that it has teeth, show me how sharp they are, the color of the saliva dripping from them, even describe the blots of plaque that grown on them. Get gross. Get detailed. Keep a running file, or have a notebook ready with all of the little things that make up your setting, and once you are intimate with it, use it. It will only add color to a painting that is otherwise black and white.

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