An English Instructor for Harrisburg Area Community College’s Virtual Learning program, Tamara Girardi holds a PhD in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Letters in Creative Writing from the University of St. Andrews. Her YA fantasy DREAMSEER won the 2013 PennWriters Novel Beginnings Contest and is on submission with agents. Tamara is a member of Backspace, Sisters in Crime, and PennWriters. Follow her on Twitter @TamaraGirardi.
On the first day of my Introduction to Literature courses, I show the students Craig Morgan’s “Redneck Yacht Club” music video on YouTube. The song has great humor and serves as an appropriate example of characterization, narrative, and setting.
Before we watch the video, our scaffolding exercise includes defining and discussing the three elements of literature. The students often define setting simply as “time and place.” I recall that definition from my elementary, middle, and high school English classrooms as well, and I wonder if it’s that oversimplification rooted deep within us that causes so many writers to overlook the power of setting.
Setting is much more than time and place.
Personally, I didn’t take setting as seriously as I should have until I started writing fantasy. I knew writing fantasy meant world-building. However, as I studied world-building techniques, it became obvious the strategies would have benefitted my other genre writing significantly. As I worked to enrich the setting of my young adult fantasy Dreamseer (currently on submission with agents, so wish me luck ;), several writing texts and exercises proved useful. In this post, I’ll share some variations of those exercises. Here are five ways to enhance your setting:
1. View Your Setting as Multi-Dimensional
Although every character might be in the same physical space, that space might represent something different to each of them. A great example of this can be seen in Veronica Roth’s work. Roth first published Divergent, but the popularity of the series and its hunky love interest, Four, led to a followup publication of four short stories from his point of view.
In other words, the first point of view readers experienced was that of Tris, the protagonist of Divergent, and the second was Four’s perspective. Brilliantly, Roth includes some of our favorite scenes in Four’s stories despite the fact we’ve already read them in Divergent. Why? Because we want to know what he’s thinking! So she tells us.
One setting in particular is Four’s fear landscape, or a staging area for him to act out his fears, an exercise he repeats with the hopes of conquering them as a member of the Dauntless faction. Four’s fears are, well, his, so Tris is not as affected by the settings in the landscape. She’s not afraid of them.
For instance, when engaging Four’s fear of heights, the scene appears in Divergent like this:
“We fall like two stones, fast, the air pushing back at us, the ground growing beneath us. Then the scene disappears, and I am on my hands and knees on the floor, grinning. I loved that rush the day I chose Dauntless, and I love it now…I get up and help [Four] to his feet. ‘What’s next?’”
Tris loves the rush of falling from an incredible height.
In Four’s short story, he describes the setting of his fear landscape differently:
“We fall and I struggle against the sensation with every inch of me, terror shrieking in every nerve, and then I’m on the ground, clutching my chest. She helps me to my feet. I feel stupid, remembering how she scaled that Ferris wheel with no hesitation. ‘What’s next?’ I want to tell her it’s not a game; my fears aren’t thrilling rides she gets to go on. But she probably doesn’t mean it that way.”
Same place. Same moment. Two different perspectives.
How does your character see what’s around him or her? What does that tell you about the character’s fears, desires, motivations? Answering these questions with relevant details serves as a great example of showing, not telling.
2. Show Your Setting as Changing
In his incredibly useful text on craft, How to Write a Breakout Novel, Don Maass offers an exercise that forces writers to see their settings as changing. Literally, the settings are not changing. The characters’ perspectives of the scenes change. Maass says to choose a climactic moment of your story. Where is that moment set? How does that setting make your character feel? Write that down.
The story continues developing, right? Action changes the character. So, revisit that setting at some point later in the story. Now, how does the character feel about the setting? Have the character’s feelings changed?
Every time your character visits the same place in your story, could they view it differently? Could they identify a detail they hadn’t noticed before? Could some feeling they experience represent a larger aspect of their development or experiences or motivations?
As the characters’ views of the settings change, the reader will understand that their own views and feelings are changing as well.
3. Illustrate How Your Characters Connect to the Setting
If you haven’t realized from the two tips above, your setting should have some influence on the character’s life and experiences, or more specifically on the plot. If the suggestions in tips 1 and 2 above don’t speak to you, you could have a problem. Phelps your setting isn’t the right setting. Your characters should connect to the setting.
Let me repeat. Your characters should connect to the setting.
We are products of our environment. Would Katniss Everdeen have been able to survive in the arena if she wasn’t forced to shoot with such accuracy so her family was free from starving? Look at all the other characters Katniss encountered in the arena. Joanna was from the lumber district, so her ax was her friend. Peeta’s strength spawned from his carrying heavy bags of flour, and his more impressive skill of camouflaging himself in the arena developed when he decorated cakes and cookies in his family’s bakery.
Setting matters. It must matter. If it doesn’t, the challenge for the writers is finding a way to make it matter, so that the characters can connect to it in meaningful ways. Or the writer must seriously consider changing the setting.
4. Develop Settings With Purpose
Thus, a logical segue into the fourth way to enhance your setting. Choose settings with purpose. The question in addressing this suggestion is simple: do you have a specific reason for each setting in your story?
If you want to create conflict, are you including floods, tornadoes, tidal waves, thunder storms, blizzards, earthquakes, raging rivers, poison berries? Do the settings reflect the characters’ emotions? Are enemies in close quarters to intensify the conflict?
Write the reasons you envision for each setting down. Are they strong enough reasons? Could you strengthen them? Could you tweak your settings to increase the tension and conflict?
If you’ve succeeded in developing settings with purpose, how do you show those purposes to the reader? Remember, it’s not enough for you to know the purpose. You must always show the connections to the reader.
5. Create Contrast Between Setting and Action
Occasionally, writers go for the obvious setting. How many movies signify the end is near with a solid rain to wash away the pain, sorrow, disappointment, fill-in-the-blank. I understand the purpose of the rain, but I find contrast between setting and action fascinating. In a 2011 post on the Writer’s Relief blog, the suggestion is made to set a murder in a petting zoo or to stage a first kiss in a junkyard.
Not the typical settings for such actions, right?
But do all murders occur in dark alleys? Do all first kisses occur before romantic beach sunsets?
No. They don’t.
So why not create some contrast between the action in your story and where that action is set? Could a major character die in the spring instead of the winter? Brainstorm a list of ten ways you could create contrast between the action on the page and where that action is set.
And continue to explore setting. Writers strive to hone their craft, but don’t make the mistake of overlooking the power of setting. Lately, I’ve noticed that setting tends to capture agents, editors, and readers attention. Would The Hunger Games have had the same appeal without the arena? The setting (a post-war nation attempting to suppress future uprisings) propelled the plot and every fantastic moment in the trilogy.
Could the Cullens have lived anywhere but the cloudy capital of the country? No. They’d sparkle too much.
What settings stand out to you as not only relevant but driving forces for plot and characterization? How can you learn from these settings to enhance your own settings?