The Importance of Setting in Fiction by Brad Windhauser

The Importance of Setting in Fiction

By Brad Windhauser

Your story opens in scene.

A woman is berating her lover, unleashing on him a series of whispered but stern barbs about his neglect before moving on to his emotional and then sexual shortcomings.  At the moment, the setting isn’t contributing, it hasn’t even been mentioned.  But let’s say that as the dialogue unfolds, the setting is clearly the kitchen of their house.  Fine but ultimately boring setting—it establishes that they’re probably married: their house.

But let’s say that the conversation is taking place in a busy upscale restaurant. Now the setting adds a level of tension—to what degree is the woman trying to be heard by her fellow diners and to what degree is she trying to conceal their conversation? How she acts in THIS setting says something about her character.  The fact that it’s an upscale restaurant says something also about them as people. Now the setting contributes.

For an even bigger twist, let’s say that the conversation is happening between the screen of a church confessional, with her lover, wearing his white collar, receiving every word.

Now the setting introduces a variety of tension simply by being the location where the scene is set. Are they really lovers? Is she telling the truth about their affair? And this is just the opening scene. We get her thoughts (through dialogue) on their connection, his profession, her thoughts on how to respect (or disrespect) it by having this conversation there, and perhaps his struggle with his religious calling.

This is the beauty of setting, and if you’re not considering all the possibilities of how to maximize its use, you’re story is missing out.

Why? In general, place matters. We eat dinner in restaurants, we sleep in bedrooms, we attend school in some form of a classroom. When something happens outside of convention, this becomes interesting. In addition, we’re human beings and so (likely) are your characters.  We attach meaning to and with places.  We are happy in some places and sad in others.  Quiet in some corners and loud in others.  Think about how we act and also how we’re supposed to act in these places. Also consider the levels of emotional attachments we have for certain locales—and not just happy, sentimental ones. Every time a guy passes a restaurant, he remembers his first date with the love of his life.

This is why setting matters in fiction.  Janet Burroway states that “The failure to create an atmosphere, to establish a sense of where or when a story takes place, will leave readers bored or confused.” She adds: “Setting grounds a story in place” and that, like dialogue, it must do more than one thing at once.

A lover’s quarrel in a kitchen in their home isn’t doing much; one in a church confessional is.

To maximize your use of setting, consider the set of protocols: what is appropriate attire? How loud can one speak? Is it crowded? A room filled with strangers? Filled with co-workers? Close friends? The degree to which a character follows or ignores “rules” or is influenced by the make-up of a place influences the story: specifically, if used well, it enhances it.

So where you set your story in general (era, location, Earth or space) and your scenes in particular should be selected deliberately. You should avoid thinking: oh, it doesn’t matter.

Keep in mind how location impacts a character’s point of view as well. Consider these examples:

  • If you hate your job, will the place of employment look different than if you love it; ditto for your house/apt.?
  • Someone sitting in church watching a wedding, someone who is going through a nasty divorce, will “see” the scene differently than someone who is getting married next week, someone who has always dreamed of getting hitched.

As you can tell from these examples, you can use setting to your advantage: where can I place a character that brings a reaction out of them? What setting deepens the understanding of a character? You should also think about the difference between a character’s private space versus their use of public space. Again, this says something about them.

Now, not every setting will be a source of contention for your character(s). But think about the places that matter to him/her/them.  If a character insists on the local organic coffee shop that might re-wash their mugs—no to go cups, naturally—over Starbucks, this says something.  If your character only eats at fine dining restaurants or only eats from food trucks, this says something.  What it says depends on the other elements of character—socio-economic status, for instance. This creates an opportunity to incorporate setting for character development.

Setting can also play a role earlier in the writing process.

A setting can generate story ideas.  Imagine a location and then imagine a person, a guy, let’s say.  A man’s laughing at a funeral. So now you have an image contingent on setting.  Interrogate: why is he laughing? How is he connected to the deceased, to the others in attendance? The answers to these questions create plot, as you start to see the how and the why the character ended up in that scene at that place.

Remember, as Elizabeth Bowen contends, “nothing happens nowhere.”

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