Saturday, February 18, 2012

Setting Up for Success

Three of my all-time favorite movies, Dark City, Labyrinth, and The Neverending Story, all have one feature in common:  The setting that the stories take place in is such a part of the story, that it inhabits the place of a character.  One of their best features is that there is no yellow-brick road.  In fact, the entire purpose of these worlds is to discourage the protagonist and, in some cases, destroy them.  Yup, I cried like a baby when Atreyu's horsey died too.

It was a dark and stormy night...

and other fun cliches.  Setting in its purest sense is used to set the mood.  I know I know... 'Duh', but you'd be surprised how many people DON'T take advantage of this.  One of the writing assignments I make my students do is to describe the same setting at different times of day.

Example:  A street may be busy in the morning with the white collared individuals honking their horns in backed up traffic, sipping their lattes and regretting that spur of the moment breakfast burrito decision.  Come mid-day, it's the hustle and bustle of pedestrians flooding the sidewalks.  But when the witching hour has come and gone, those streets are privy only to wind-tossed litter, drunks stumbling home and a WHOLE lot of no-good.

Just from this example, you can see the potential moods from each.  This can be applied to most settings.  Imagine a beach, crowded at day, romantic at evening, lonely at dawn.  A farm is a host of activity all day, but eerily quiet in the evening.  Even a single location throughout a story has the potential to bring on the entire spectrum of mood and emotion.

Romancing the Scenario

One thing to remember about any location where people (or sometimes other creatures) live, is that every location has its own level of charm for somebody.  I love the stories of people who are at one with the city, because that's never been me.  Or the rustic southern comfort of a small town where everybody knows everybody else.  While some people will strive to get away from their hometown and pursue other ventures, there will always be those that find indescribable serenity in their habitual ways of everyday life.

Work it, Baby!

So how do you make this work for you?  Simple.  Spend just as much time (if not more) creating the environment as you would on the main protagonist(s).  If you're creating a fantasy world, you'll need to understand government, commerce, imports, exports, trade crops and the various tasks of the everyday people.  You might not ever write any of it into your story, but it should be there for you to reference.  If a civilization doesn't work, the landscape will look painted on.

If you're writing about a place that already exists, research research research!  Get to know the citizens, the folklore, the superstitions, the happy places and the dark ones.

Remember: Readers want to dive into a story, submerge themselves and get lost in it.  Shallow waters lead to some major headaches.


  1. Very helpful info! Thanx! As a fantasy writer, I often have to think of my stories in terms of worldbuilding. It can be tough but really a fun challenge to make stuff up! Lands and magic and new things! :)

  2. Good thoughts Matthew. I always prefer the scene setting be "an inch long and a mile deep" rather than "a mile long and an inch deep." Dunk my head deep into that place, but be brief, I don't want to drown.
    Chrissy, I think his advice applies to all genres of fiction, not just fantasy. (Enjoyed the exercise about describiing the same place at diiferent times of day. Gonna borrow that one.)

    1. ...You're quoting your editor, right? I've SEEN your work prior to the briss ;)

  3. Great post! I seem to have a hard time creating a setting when the setting is just a normal city with a normal street and a normal school. YOu know? Creating a full universe is hard, but it becomes its own character. When the setting is so easy, it's hard to make it its own. (If that makes sense!)

    1. I understand your point, but you may just be doing yourself a disservice by thinking too generically about it. College is the only place I've ever been TRULY involved with a city, but it seemed like every place I went had it's own special charm. (Good or evil)

      Spend some time as a city pedestrian. Walk into some buildings. Stop by a school yard. Duck into a couple hangouts. You'll get a ton of atmosphere if you look at each location as an individual as apposed to trying to map out an entire city in your head.

      Just my 2 cents ;)