Weekly Writing Memo: Where’s the Story?Posted: June 22, 2016
As I’ve touched on in previous posts both here and on Author the World, the setting you choose for your story can be pivotal to your story’s success. The setting of a story can have just as much impact on character and plot as an antagonist could, so it’s incredibly important to think carefully about where you set your story. The three biggest ways the setting can influence the story is through tone, character, and plot.
The tone of your story can help tell your audience how to interpret everything that happens. If your narrator has a flippant tone to how they tell the story, it can tell audiences not to take things too seriously. If the narrator has a serious, dark voice, it can tell audiences that the story will be dark. The setting is a major part of declaring the tone. Think of any story, movie or book, whichever comes to mind. Where is it set? What if you set it somewhere completely opposite? How would the story change?
A great example of this is the TV show Burn Notice. I heard somewhere that the original script had the show set in a city like Chicago (I can’t remember if this is the right city, but at the very least, it was similar to Chicago in tone). Imagine how that setting would change the story compared to where it actually was set, Miami. First off, visually it would be very different. Instead of the bright sunshine and beautiful beaches, you’d get the cold concrete and grayer tones that Chicago has to offer. Instead of brightly dressed citizens in sundresses and bikinis and laid-back suits, you’d get city folk bundled up against strong winds and even snow now and then.
The story taking place in such a bright sunshiny place creates a contrast between the serious spy drama with the laid-back atmosphere. It makes things more humorous, and allows the story to have some brightness in what is really a dark story if you think about it. If the story was set in Chicago as originally planned, then not only would the drama be more serious because the setting would be more serious, but the overall appearance of the show would be more serious.
Setting is not only important for tone, but for character as well. If your character is a hardened detective in a small town, he’s going to be out of place and his tactics might not work. Of course, if that’s the point then that is a perfect set-up. If you want your detective to fit in, though, then you might reconsider where you place him. The setting has to highlight something about your character. Does it show how perfectly your character can navigate their world, or does it show how out of place they are? Whatever it is, make sure you’ve thought it through.
The other thing to consider is how the setting helps create your character into who they are. If this is a setting that your character has lived in for a while, then it will have an impact on their personality and past. If this is a setting they are new to, then remember to show how the setting your character has come from contrasts to the setting they are in now.
One of the final things to consider when choosing a setting is the plot. How does the setting you choose affect the plot? If you are writing a big spy thriller but you set it in a small town, it’s going to be hard to have the kind of espionage needed to really make a spy thriller succeed unless that small town has some sort of national secret to it. Similarly, if you’re looking for a big chase scenes with lots of chaos and people, you’re going to be hard pressed to find the right setting for it in a small town setting.
When choosing where to set your story ask yourself a few questions. What kind of people does this setting allow my protagonist to interact with? What kind of conflicts are inherent to this setting? What kinds of locations does this setting provide for me to work with? These three questions are all vital things to consider when choosing a location, so make sure to consider them carefully.
Ultimately, wherever you set your story will influence every other part of your story. If you’re ever doubting a choice, or if you want to check if your choice is a good one, try asking yourself what your story will look like if you set it in the complete opposite location. If your story doesn’t work at all in this location, then your original location is probably best. If the opposite location does work, then compare the two and see which one works better overall. Sometimes there will be more than one optimal setting for a story, but the important thing is that you’ve considered your options, and that you’ve chosen your setting carefully and with deliberate purpose.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.