Setting the Scene
By Deren Bott
The setting is an often underrated tool in writing. I have heard many think of it as just something in the background, something that isn’t worth drawing much attention to (unless of course, you’re writing epic fantasy where the setting often is your story). While I do agree that it is important to focus on characters, events, and other aspects of writing, we should make sure that we don’t lose the richness the setting can bring to our writing.
Depending on the context, the setting can be defined in several different ways. One of the most common is the immediate vicinity around the characters which usually includes the city or town that they are in but can also be as small as the room where the story takes place. A common problem with new writers (especially when writing novels) is “white room syndrome” where the characters are interacting with each other, but there is little to no description of what is happening around them. For all the reader knows, the characters might just be in an empty room with blank walls. The tragic part of this is that the writer misses the opportunity to ground the reader in the scene and further explore the characters.
Another definition of setting is the period of time in which the story takes place. If your story is about a character needing to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast on a plane, the description of airport security would be vastly different depending on whether or not the story happens before or after 9/11. You can even further increase the specificity of the time period to make the reader feel even more grounded. Just imagine how the story would change if they needed a plane only a few days after 9/11 as opposed to a few years. Or if planes still hadn’t been invented yet. Would they need to drive? Take a train? Travel by horseback? (Don’t be afraid to do research.)
While a good rule-of-thumb is that increased specificity in time period generally helps the story, it can be taken overboard and is ultimately up to the discretion of the writer. Some writers have the problem where they invest too much time and neglect the other aspects of the story. In many instances, this leads to “world builder’s disease” where the story is never written because all time and energy are being devoted to the setting.
Great writing has to walk the fine line between addressing the setting without letting it control the story. The purpose of the setting is to make the story more realistic, the characters more relatable, and help the readers become more engaged. If done correctly, the setting can also be used to inform character decisions, create tension, and imply backstory. It’s one thing to be stranded in a broken-down car on the side of the road and quite another to be stranded in a broken-down car on the side of the road in a blizzard and the nearest town is 20 miles away.