“Class,” Mrs. Never Does Anything Without Consulting The Teacher’s Edition (Mrs. NDAWCTTE) whines. “What are the six story elements that we discussed yesterday?”
Beside me, Little Miss Perfect thrusts her hand into the air. Before Mrs. NDAWCTTE has a chance to call on the braggart, however, Little Miss Perfect takes a deep breath and recites—word-for-word—what Mrs. NDAWCTTE had said the previous day: “The exposition begins the story by introducing the setting and characters, the narrative hook draws the reader in, the rising action leads to the climax, and the falling action unwinds the story and brings you to the conclusion.”
“Very good!” Mrs. s NDAWCTTE squeaks. “And can you tell me about the setting?”
“The setting introduces the time and place of the story.”
No matter if you’re a high-school hostage, college captive, or regular Joe Shmo living the life of the free, this scenario has to sound familiar. You know what I’m talking about. I mean, who really cares about the setting of a story? You dragged through the same shpeal year after year in English class, and it never got any more interesting. I mean…you get it: the setting introduces the time and place of the story. The know-it-all already clarified that. Great. Now move on.
Here’s the thing: There’s more to the setting than your high school teachers let on. In fact, the setting just might be—aside from characterization, plot, and point of view—the most important element of story writing. Think back to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado: Most of the story centers on a description of the catacombs and walls smothered in human remains. The foreshadowing Poe uses by populating the crypt with skeletons creates the suspense and horror necessary to depict a revengeful murder. Even if you’ve never read the story, doesn’t the image of a dark tomb send shivers down your spine? What if Montresor had killed Fortunato in broad daylight or out in a town square filled with people? The story wouldn’t have the same thrust that Poe intended it to have.
So how do you choose the right setting?
Consider all time frames, planets, climates, and dimensions. Would your story work better if set in the 1600’s or in the future? Mountains or plains? Village or city? Desert or rainforest? Castle or sewer? During a war? If so, which one would best fit your plot? Should the character be by him/herself or with other people? Perhaps your story takes place in a secret society that only a few people know about. Or maybe you would rather shape a new world of your own that no one has ever heard of. Are the laws of gravity the same? What do people drive—or can they drive? Think about the governmental issues that circle the world today…can you think of any that you can relate to your story? Ask yourself questions such as these to make YOUR setting fit YOUR story. Don’t just copy someone else’s.
Do Your Research
If you want your story set in the past, you’re going to have to figure out what daily life was like back then. What did people do on a day-to-day basis? Were there telephones? Electrical lights? Cars? Segregational issues? Would it be possible to interview someone who lived back in that timeframe? If your setting is in the future, you’ll have to think up some cool inventions…take a look at current scientific experiments for ideas. But don’t just use the cliché flying cars idea; be original.
Keep it Consistent
No matter what setting you choose, you have to make sure that it all makes sense and that you keep the rules of your society consistent throughout your story. Do not make the mistake of changing something halfway through to fit your story…your readers will pick up on it, and they will be annoyed. I guarantee it.
Set the Mood
Remember Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado? His setting was perfect for his story because it helped to establish the eerie mood that he was looking for. If you want your setting to be bright and cheery, don’t abandon your characters in a place full of shadows and whispers. Likewise, if you want the creepy effect, don’t plop your character on a purple unicorn and send him/her on a quest to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Use common sense to your advantage.
DETAILS, my Good Son!
Now that you’ve got your setting all planned out, don’t skimp out on your readers. Remember: Live your story! Have fun with it. If you can’t picture what’s going on, your readers definitely won’t be able to.
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