S – Setting

SI talked about the essential nature of characters earlier on in the A to Z Challenge, so I felt like it was good to talk about another important element most any story – written or unwritten – has to it. And that is the Setting. We are, all of us, impacted by the places we have been, have grown up in, and know about. Whether those impacts are societal, economic, linguistic, or story-worthy, we are all impacted by place. If characters are so pivotal, it follows that place impacts them as well, and should be taken seriously as well.

It can be easy to take the setting for granted, maybe especially in realistic sorts of writing. Set your story in a known place? Let everyone’s stereotypes, assumptions, and knowledge of the place fill it up. I feel like we fall back on this especially in spoken story-telling – we might mention someone is from Texas, for instance, to conjure up a whole host of assumptions. And we let that setting, that place, tell a whole story all on its own.

However, with real-world settings, it is often especially good when they are filled in with all sorts of real details, especially when they are real details that you know. For instance, when I was reading P.D. James’ Children of Men, I was amazed to find it set in Oxford, on a street I stayed at when I was there one summer. Suddenly, all the little setting details just had me grinning and happy. Or in Joe Haldeman’s Old Twentieth, in one of many setting-heavy scenes (they are effectively virtual reality tourists for most of the novel), they end up in Ohio eating 5-way Skyline Chili. Such a very specific detail, and one so heavily rooted in a place.

With invented settings, the problem can almost be the opposite: the writer can get lost in telling you about their world, all the cool things they’ve put in it, and forget to tell a story about characters. This is still much of my impression from the Lord of the Rings novels: so much of Tolkien’s writing is descriptive of the terrain and world. This is part of why the films both do and do not feel so much like the books: the setting is brought to life so well in the films, but then the dialog and scenes had to really be fleshed out to make up the time. It couldn’t all be panoramic shots of New Zealand. I don’t think.

What do you think – do you have a favorite setting or description of a setting? Let me know in the comments!

“And we will call it… This Land.”

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