Setting is an often underused tool. We all create one, usually more than one, but we don't always take advantage of what the right setting can do for our novels--the setting is just a place where the novel takes place, not something crafted to serve the story.
This is a missed opportunity, because setting can bring out subtleties in the story and deepen an entire scene. It can permeate a story and evoke both character and reader emotions.
Let's say you have scene where you want your protagonist to feel uncomfortable, because she's confronting a co-worker who just stabbed her in the back at work.
Where would you set it?
The most obvious choice is at work, since that's where she interacts with this person. She'd likely do it somewhere familiar to her, because she'll want a position of strength for this confrontation. But that means she'll be in familiar and safe territory. It'll help keep her calm and lessen her apprehension of this meeting. Calm and safe are not the emotions we want for this scene, so the setting is doing nothing to help us.
So let's move this meeting to a location that puts the protagonist at a disadvantage, so the stakes go up and the tensions are raised. Instead of work, let's choose a place that makes her uncomfortable as well so the setting reflects the emotions we want both the character and the reader to feel.
If she wants to do this in private, we'll force her to confront her coworker in a public place where anyone might overhear. If she's a recovering alcoholic, we'll send her into a bar where drinks are flowing heavily. If she dislikes kids, we'll make her attend a birthday party for twenty-five ten year olds.
If we use the setting to push the emotions of the protagonist to new heights, we'll also make her goals harder to accomplish. It'll add more conflict, and raise the tensions since it's far more likely something will go wrong.
Look at the settings in your scenes and ask:
- Does the setting reflect the emotion of the character?
- What emotion would make the protagonist's goal harder to accomplish? Is there a setting that evokes this emotion in the character?
- What emotion would add more conflict?
- How would the opposite emotion affect the scene?
- What is the worst setting for a scene to take place in? What happens if you move the scene there?
- What setting would push the protagonist out of her comfort zone?
- What setting would give the antagonist of the scene the advantage?
- What setting would put the protagonist at a disadvantage?
What settings have affected you emotionally? Why?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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