The Importance of Setting


From Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Oh look, I’m using an image today–yay!  (Usually I just don’t feel like doing the whole free-image-search-attribution deal.  Indolence!)

Okay, so here’s a thing I could probably lose entire months getting lost in: worldbuilding.

But first, let’s talk about setting.  (Aaaaaawww…)

Setting is important.  It is where your story takes place. (Really?!) It also refers to the time frame during which the story unfolds.  Without setting, your characters, and your readers, have no frame of reference, no context from which a “story” may even be derived.  No grounds for constructing a meaningful experience upon.

Place.  Time.  Context.  Together, they help to create story orientation.  (I just got this image of a Captain Planet-like team putting their superpowered rings of storytelling together in a big circle, declaring, “Concept, plot, character, setting, theme…Story!” [Insert bubbly, make-believe theme song here.])

Setting can be as ordinary as a barber shop somewhere in a post-WWII American town or as outlandish as an alien planet where gargantuan, mobile, carnivorous plant species coexist with the indigenous lavender-skinned humanoids with sweat glands that secrete a natural repellent, making them inherently “unappetizing” to their feisty plant denizens.

Of course, perhaps for your protagonist that little barber shop doesn’t seem so ordinary anymore after he inadvertently (it seems) discovers a small, odd-looking chest hidden beneath some floor boards, locked by a key of unknown whereabouts and origins; and perhaps those flesh-eating plants and that lavender skin are just as commonplace as the next pebble on the ground, though not so common as that new, benevolent yellow plant species that suddenly popped up in the forest this morning and seems to respond, out of tentative interest, to only one humanoid native in particular.  It all depends on the perspective of the characters you choose and the plot they’re involved in.  All these things are dependent upon one another.

And that is the beauty of story.

However usual or unusual your setting may be, I firmly believe that it must be unique to the story being told.  If it doesn’t make a hill-of-beans difference whether Mary discovers herself in Plano, Texas or on the Moon, then perhaps that writer has got a bit of story-soul-searching to do.  A setting that does not participate with its characters, plots and themes, or has no connection to the other elements of the story, is just an inconsequential place setting at which the writer may be left alone to dine.  And maybe you don’t believe this to be true in real life, but wouldn’t you say that in every great story all things happen for a reason?  That nothing–no detail of setting or plot or character or anything else–is ever left to chance?

Think about it.  Would Jane Eyre’s story be the same if it were set in modern-day England?  Would the tales of Jedi Knights be nearly as epic were they placed on a single planet during a time in which space travel was not yet possible?  I should think not.

It’s All In the Details

In my current WIP the elements of earth, metal, wood, water, fire, air and aether/void play a tremendous role in the overall color and flavor of the story.  Not only are they the categories for elemental powers used by some of my characters but also personality types.  I’ll use word associations that are evocative of the elements to describe my characters, according to whichever element I’ve linked them to.

For example, my protagonist Voi is linked to the element of air.  Her entire way of being, even some of her thought processes, mimic or relate to the characteristics of air–a passion for air travel, for example, and a tendency towards flightiness, even a fickle and child-like nature.  Now, not everything she does is filtered through this one element, however, because people in real life aren’t one dimensional like that, but I do make it a point to carry out the personification of the elements through my character’s actions.

(I definitely think this has the potential to get pretty hokey and cliché, depending on how it’s done, but that’s something I’ve had to work out in my own writing style.  The popular axiom of “show, don’t tell” is probably the easiest way, I think, to avoid this trap.  Showing Voi fleeing from situations rather than conveniently narrating the fact that she is, in fact, a sylph-like creature prone to capriciousness.  And so on and so forth…)

If God is in the details, and the author is virtually a story’s god, then why would he leave the setting (or any other story element, for that matter) to chance when ultimately he is in control?  Though, you also know what they say about the Devil fitting somewhere in there, too, so the moral of that story is: It’s not easy playing God for a day, or 365 of them, or however many days it takes you to write a novel (because let’s face it, this is what writers essentially do when they write, isn’t it?), though if you care about writing a quality story, then you’ll give every ounce of it its due amount of attention to detail.

Perhaps you are thinking now, “That’s some high talk…coming from an amateur.”

Look, I’m not saying I’m some master at all of this, ’cause I’m not.  Like any other art form, I think learning to tell a story with attention to detail is a continual practice, though I think it is important to do so and it is something I am actively pursuing to the best of my ability–barring the fact that I am not (yet) published.

[Obligatory Hiatus]

All right, all right, so by now you’ve probably realized that I like to write loooong-ish posts.  I’ve already written like a three-part series and just decided to chop it into pieces.  (Did I tell you that my manuscript at this moment is sitting at just under 200K words?  Um, yeah…I am seriously considering labeling it as an “epic fantasy,” at this point, though I’m not 100% sure if it belongs there.)  I’m verbose like that, and I really can’t help it.  Apparently, I’ve got a lot of freakin’ stuff to say.

I understand that people generally need to eat large beasts in small bites, though, so tomorrow I’m gonna post the rest of my thoughts.  (I don’t really want to get into the habit of posting in Parts I, II, III, etc. like I have already, twice, ’cause oddly I don’t really feel I have that kind of privilege.  Couldn’t exactly tell you why.)

But since we’ve come to this hiatus now…I’ve got some questions for you!

How important is the setting in your current work(s) of storytelling art?  How is it connected to the other elements of story–your characters, themes and the plot itself?  Is it something that’s more of a background element, or is it one of those things you want to showcase?  (Neither is it necessarily good or bad, I don’t think, though I am curious.  It probably depends a lot on your genre, too.)


3 thoughts on “The Importance of Setting

  1. >Sometimes setting acts/behaves like another character in my plot. I like setting to show something about the culture, people, or set the tone of the story, and not just be there for decoration 🙂


  2. >Setting is very important to my current WIP. There are some connections to our world, but it is set in an alternative world. Very steampunk.It's a world set in the middle of great change, where the ancient traditions are giving way to the birth of new technology.


  3. >@Bazelli: Absolutely. And though man holds the power to shape his environment, that same environment may also influence him. It is an interesting relationship these two elements share.@Noel: Sounds like interesting times ahead! Some people may welcome that change, yet others may rebel against it. Instant potential for conflict! (Just read your prologue sample, btw. About to comment on it now.)


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