Friday, February 4, 2011

Location, location, location

Now that we have some basic bones for our story worked out, and idea of who our main and secondary characters are let's talk about where our story takes place - the setting.

Sometimes a certain plot dictates a setting. Like if you're writing about a teen trying to make it in show business, you'll probably be setting your story in Los Angeles, New York City, or the international equivalents. If your story is about someone escaping big city life, then you're going to be finding yourself a small town.

A setting can be a sort of character itself. Gilmore Girls certainly would have lost something had it not been set in Stars Hollow. Or an extreme example of this is Lost.

On the flip side, a setting can be something that doesn't matter at all. 24 didn't need to take place in L.A.

Or maybe your setting is something that doesn't really exist. Like a giant peach or an elaborate chocolate factor. (Oh, I love Roald Dahl.) This is often the case in science fiction or fantasy.

Another possibility is a historical setting. Like Savannah, Georgia in 1822. Or New York City in the roaring 20s.

Whatever your setting is, it's important to know it and know it well. While the reader doesn't need pages and pages of description, they do need context. They need some sort of picture of where the action is taking place.

I love the way Donald Maass summarizes setting in his book Writing the Breakout Novel.

"...the world of the novel is composed of much more than description of landscape or rooms. It is milieu, period, fashion, ideas, human outlook, historical moment, spiritual mood and more. It is capturing not only place but people in an environment; not only history but humans changing in their era. Description is the least of it. Bringing people alive in a place and time that are alive is the essence of it."
(I had to look up the word 'milieu.' It means surrounds, particularly of a social nature.)

Something you might try as you consider if you've picked a good location for your story is think about what would change if you moved it. What if you moved it to a small town? Or to the East coast? Or to Hawaii?

More on setting next week. Don't forget to send me your writing prompts!


  1. I once heard (or probably read) someone say something like, "If your story wouldn't change if you moved it, then you haven't found the right setting." This really struck me, because at the time I was pretty willy-nilly about where I set something. Since then, I've made a concerted effort to weave my story thoroughly through its location, wherever that may be.

    Now back I go to Annapolis, which is rather crucial to this one's devlopement. ;-)

  2. First off, Roald Dahl is my favorite author of all time.

    Second, Roseanna that quote just made my day! I love it, and with this current ms it makes me feel good. It's so easy to get frustrated with a wip that it's really nice when something makes you feel like your on the right track!

  3. Stephanie, for the writing prompt is it ok to use lines from a song in a few places?

  4. Is Anytown, USA an ok setting as long as the specific places within that town are "special"? I could move my current story to just about any mid-size town in the US, and it wouldn't change, but if, say, the youth room where my first chapter takes place, was changed, it would make the story very different. The homes of my characters are very specific as well.

    What do you think?

  5. Roseanna, thanks for sharing that. It's good advice, and I haven't heard it phrased so succinctly.

    Tonya, yep, totally fine!

    Jordan, interesting question. We have settings within our settings, right. I think there's a value to Anytown, USA type settings. I've seen them work very well.