Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Importance of the Setting

Settings are very important to a story. They ground the story and add that extra layer of realism. A good setting transports the reader seamlessly into the story. Without a good setting the reader sees the characters interacting in the imagination as if in a fog. The setting gives the reader a picture to fill in around the characters, whether it is a park in Paris, a kitchen in a farm town in Iowa, or the middle of a bazaar on a space station light years from Earth. It allows the character to act and often to react to what the plot or other characters throw at the characters in each scene. After all, the food vendor at the bazaar has just the right juicy oranges to throw at the retreating back of the man that just shattered your character’s heart. In other ways the setting can force a reaction, such as a falling beam or how many flammable things are in the room. A fire will spread faster in a kitchen with wood cabinets and tabletops versus a kitchen with metal cupboards and stone tabletops.
I like to think of my settings as characters and give them at least as much time in development. (I will admit to often getting absorbed and giving my setting much more thought than most of my characters. There are just so many things to think about, as I will show you in the coming days.) Know the appearance of the setting, all its colors and shapes, dimensions and the layout of furniture. Know all the sounds surrounding it, such as the train that passes every half hour or the fog horns that can be heard from the nearby harbor, and the smells nearby, such as the lilac bush by the windows or the noodle factory in town.
However, be careful not to overdo it. Does the reader really need to know about the order of the books on the shelf or the dog crap that litters the neighbor’s yard? Not unless it pertains to the story. Often the setting can be used as a distraction. How many times have you focused on what you were doing or where you were going to avoid thinking about something or responding to something? That is how some people react as is how they play with something. Maybe your girl fiddles with a decorative ball when nervous or throws pitchers when angry. The most important thing to remember about setting is to be consistent. That ball your girl may play with on the porch is more likely to be an orange in the kitchen or a pine cone in the woods. Usually people don’t bring things to fiddle with along in their pockets so having her suddenly have a tennis ball in her hand at a bar or at work would take some explaining.
With all these things to keep in mind, creating your setting may seem daunting. For people who set your stories on Earth, learning your setting may be as simple as visiting somewhere for a week or walking down the street. For those of us who write science fiction stories, creating our settings adds a number of questions others don’t need to think about. Over the next few weeks I will try to give Sci-Fi writers some extra guidance on things to think about whether creating a new planet, sailing the stars in a space ship, or merely getting the minute details of a single room right. Welcome to my guide on world building and I hope this is helpful to you.

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