Writers Write creates writing resources and shares writing tips. This post on 7 simple things to remember about setting will help you write your novels and stories.
You have to create a complete picture by including setting details. If you don’t, you run the risk of alienating your reader. We will not believe you, because we need the backdrop. Think of watching a movie that takes place on a black screen. Not so much fun.
7 Simple Things To Remember About Setting
- Town, country or kingdom: Where does the story take place? This space can be as big or as small as you want to make it. In Room by Emma Donoghue, it starts off literally in one room. In the movie, Phone Booth the character is stuck in a phone booth, in Locke the character is confined to his car. Other stories take place on continents or even in universes.
- Present, past or future: When does your story take place? If it takes place hundreds of years ago there were no phones or cars. The above-mentioned movies would not be possible. How does technology, or the lack thereof, influence your story? Today in crime stories the cops use facial recognition software, a few years ago witnesses had to go through pages and pages of possible photos in big fat files.
- Ball gowns or bellbottoms: What era are they in? What were they wearing? A girl in a ball gown will find it harder to climb out the restroom window than a girl in a pair of bellbottoms. Consider their clothes.
- The minutes, the hours, the days: This is the timeframe. What happened during that period of history? You can’t set your story in Europe in 1943 and ignore the war. The continent was almost crippled by death and destruction. Give it a Google and see what happened in your story’s timeframe.
- Weather: Sandstorms, rain or even snow can be a blessing or a curse. For lovers being trapped in a cottage in the snow is heaven, for a mother stuck in a cabin with four kids during a snow storm, it is hellish.
- Walk like an Egyptian: What kind of culture are you dealing with? Super conservative or super liberal? What is frowned upon in this society? What is celebrated? What would make them go to war? How do they treat their woman, their elderly, their children, their pets?
- Geography: Africa, Asia or Antarctica? Does your protagonist need sunscreen, chopsticks or snow goggles? Are they dodging volcanoes or swimming in the sea?
Let’s use the example of marriage or a wedding. How do different settings influence a wedding?
- Town, country or kingdom: Does it take place in a grand, old church or in office down at the courthouse? As a rule, princesses don’t get married in courthouses and couples who get married on the spur of the moment don’t get married in big churches. And then it depends on which country you choose to set your story in. What laws govern the marriage? Do the couple need to slaughter a lamb before the ceremony? Do they need to pay for a license? Do they need to have blood tests done? Do they have to ask their parents for permission? And then, whose opinion is more important, the mother or the father? Can they get divorced?
- Present, past or future: Attitudes have changed; at least we like to think they have. In 1852 being unmarried at 25 was almost a sin, today it’s considered the average age for a bride. Marriage was the norm 50 years ago and divorce not as common. Today, it’s different. King Henry got divorced, got syphilis as a bonus and ruined his kingdom, King Edward VIII abdicated to marry the divorced Wallace Simpson, and Prince Charles, got divorced to marry Camilla Parker Bowles, but still has a shot at the throne. Our attitudes about marriage and divorce have changed. ‘When’ you set your story should reflect the attitudes of the times.
- Ball gowns or bellbottoms: What will the bride and groom be wearing? Do they attend the ceremony naked to express the purity of their love? Do the brides wear overpriced gowns to symbolise their virginity? Do they wear red dresses or Jackie O suits? Is she wearing the dress the groom’s grandmother wore to her own wedding?
- The minutes, the hours, the days: When does the wedding take place? In the morning when the groom is still hung over? Or at night, when it is dark and the groom is tricked into marrying the wrong girl because he can’t see her through her veil. Is your story told before, after or during the ceremony? Is it a weekend wedding that has been planned for months or a quick ‘I do’ at the courthouse?
- Weather: Rain is supposed to bring good luck to the couple, but who looks good with wet, frizzy hair? Who loves a hot suit on a summer’s day? No one. That’s who. Does a hurricane postpone the wedding, allowing the true love to arrive in time to stop the ceremony? Is it so hot the flowers and cake melt before the guests reach the reception? Does the bride consider it a sign and back out?
- Walk like an Egyptian: Cultures vary. Their thoughts on marriage even more so. Is it a matriarchal society? Does the man marry into the wife’s family to become her possession? Is it an arranged marriage? Is it a mail-order bride?
- Geography: What mountains lie between the lovers? What is keeping them apart? Is it distance like in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’? Are the lovers from warring kingdoms or are they strangers married two strengthen trade between two countries?
Consider each one of these aspects when you write. Creating a setting is an art. Work hard to hone your skills.
Look out for my next post How To Convey Setting In Dialogue
If you’re looking for help with setting, buy our Setting Up The Setting Workbook.
by Mia Botha
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