Wednesday, June 22, 2011

If You Can Make it There... How Setting Can Affect Your Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A few years ago a bunch of us went to see District 9. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it's about a ship full of aliens that are space-wrecked on Earth and have spent the last twenty years living in a controlled area called District 9. Although they never say anything to support it, I got the impression it was a darker take on the old movie, Alien Nation (one of my faves). 

A good example of how readers/viewers bring their own experiences to a story actually, as I made assumptions about things in the movies based on this connection. Things that bothered my husband about it didn't bother me because I assumed XYZ and he didn't.

I wasn't sure if I liked District 9, but I found myself appreciating the movie more for what it did than what is was. I didn't come out thinking. "Wow, what a great movie," but "Wow, they did some really interesting things."

One of the things I found the most interesting about this movie was the choice of setting. The alien ship could have settled over any city, but they (the writers) chose Johannesburg, South Africa. I think that the events depicted in the film would not have happened the same way had this been set in, say, LA or Tuscon or London. The setting brought a cultural history to the problem that made it very believable for things to have happened as they did. 

In this case, it wasn't an issue of race, but of species. Since South Africa has a history with racial strife and apartheid, attitudes toward the aliens were strongly affected by that past. What happened in the movie fits very well with the history of the setting.

We all know what happens in a story is important, but where it happens has a profound effect on the characters and their views on things (or at least it should). 

If your setting doesn't add something to the mix, you might be wasting a great opportunity to deepen your story or layer in more conflicts.

Setting plays a big role in The Shifter. Many of the problems Nya faces are directly related to the fact that her city is under enemy occupation. Her attitude about nearly everything is colored by this fact and her experiences with this. If I moved the setting, the book would be pretty boring. The layers of conflict and meaning just wouldn't be there anymore. And those layers are critical to the story.

If you're working on a story right now that isn't quite working and you don't know why, try taking a look at the setting. 

Or even if the story is working, but you feel it just doesn't have that oompf it needs to really stand out. Ask yourself, does the setting...
  • Offer inherent conflicts that make the protag's job harder, but don't relate specifically to plot?
  • Offer a history that creates a deeper thematic meaning?
  • Allow you to make a point you couldn't otherwise make?
  • Provide a challenge you couldn't otherwise have?
  • Pull its own weight as far as the story is concerned, or just sit there looking pretty?
What something looks like is rarely as interesting as why it's there or how it affects things, so take advantage of all the meaning the right setting can bring to your stories.

How does your setting affect your story? What does it bring to the tale?

More articles on setting:
Using setting to help build your world
Maintaining your setting
Using setting to raise the tension 

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. What a great post! I've never thought about it that way before. It's definitely something to think about as I work on my revisions. Thanks for sharing!

  2. When I first read this, I didn't think setting played too much into my novel. I chose Northeast Philadelphia because it's my hometown, and I felt it offered a varied atmosphere for the story. But thinking about it... much of my story is twined into that atmosphere. The fact that it has neighborhoods and parks and is part of a major city and near poverty-stricken areas and has rowhomes, single homes, and everything in between -- all of that comes into play at some point. Guess I was wrong!

  3. Background does tend to blend into the, well, background. :)

  4. I really enjoyed this post and the way you explained it Janet. I helps me understand even more how to use background to add depth to my writing.
    I have been doing some of this, but hadn't been seeing as clearly as you had illustrated.
    I have a couple of YA WIP right now and in both, I wanted the protag and their potential romantic partner to have alot of communication/culture conflict. In one story, I have the male from an isolated rocky alpine area and the female from a riverside farming community. They live geographically not so far away from each other, but have totally different outlooks on nature, making a living and how people should interact with one another.
    In the other, I have someone from the lowlands of Belgium/Netherlands area and another from the higher forest lands south of there. They each assume the other should understand what the other knows. When they say something thoughtless, grounded in their own culture, it creates misunderstanding and conflict.
    Always fun to have some spice as the romance develops!

  5. I've seen that film and, admittedly, I really disliked it. I kept waiting for the main story arc to start, not realising it had. The story just didn't draw me in as expected. The ideas are, in hindsight interesting.

    The important background I always think of is the Moors in Great Expectation by Charles Dickens. They are despondent and stretch on seemingly forever. And, at the start of the book, he's in a graveyard. I think setting was incredibly important, and the moors themselves became important in the plot. Wuthering Heights is also a good example since the different houses signifies, more than anything, the division between the two families.

    Great post: to-the-point and easy to remember.

  6. All my books are set in Nigeria in order to suit the cultural conflicts my characters face.

  7. Ha, I saw "District 9" and immediately thought of Hunger Games. :)

    Guess that's just another example of how reader assumptions and experiences can influence our take on things. I instantly pictured the settings Suzanne Collins used when I saw the post title. Great insights, BTW!

  8. I'm in the process of researching setting (Hawaii as the basis, though a fictional country) for the final draft of mine. I realized I needed to do more extensive research and spent almost two weeks digging through every encyclopedia and book I could find.

    I ended up finding several pieces of information that are allowing me to help fill in some gaps in the story. Other parts allowed me to do world-building in unexpected ways.

  9. Awesome advice... and great delivery on the information, it was easy to understand and opened my eyes to a few weak point throughout my story.

  10. Great post. Imagine if a movie was filmed in a white-walled room with nothing but the actors and actresses. Story needs setting to live just as setting needs Characters to be useful.

  11. I agree entirely that the setting can be an important character, especially when you express the humans' attitude towards it. The same can be done with inanimate objects. My male protagonist loves his vintage 1947 Willys Overland jeep that is used to help my characters escape from the wilderness. When the female main character grows to feel affection for the vehicle, it begins a 'life' of its own, so to speak. No, I'm not so silly as to write a scene in the jeep's POV, although maybe some day...

  12. Amelia: That sounds like fun! I love when two characters are being true to themselves like that and that causes conflict. It's misunderstandings, but in a believable way.

    Alex: Great examples. WH does a lot with setting and themes. The book would have been very different had she set it in say, Paris.

    Myne: So cool. I love books with non-US settings. So much more interesting sometimes because I don't know how people are going to behave.

    Nicole: Oh, LOL I totally see that. It is a great example, too.

    Linda: Research is a helpful thing. I've found plenty of interesting things I could use and my worlds aren't even real. You might also try visitor bureaus and tourist sites. I've used those as well.

    Jeff: Great! Always love it when a post helps someone :)

    Gene: It does. Though there's this movie "Closet Land" from years ago that two characters and one room. Good film, though very dark and disturbing. But even there, the setting (little as there was) was thematically right for the story and added to it.

    Sue: I love that. It probably also shows her growing affection for the owner of that jeep as well, right?

  13. Love this, thank you! It really gets me thinking and trying to make the setting more than just a place for them to be.