Monday, January 27, 2014

It's all About Setting...

Where it All Happens

Ahhh...Hawaii. So beautiful. So peaceful. I still can't believe we were actually there in Maui! I remember sitting on the sandy beach listening to the waves come in thinking, "This would make a terrific setting for a story!"

Well, every story needs to have a setting, but does it really matter where a story takes place?

You betcha!


Today I taught my students about Setting as they begin to brainstorm for their original narratives. We discussed what Setting is in writing and why it is important to begin there.

Setting is the time, place, and environment in which a story takes place. The setting should have a connection to the main characters of the story.

For example...

In "The Hunger Games" we have Katniss living in District 12. This district is set in the mountains surrounded by trees and wildlife. The forest is a lot like Katniss: beautiful, tough, harsh in that it can kill you in an instant, and yet it is soft and gentle at times, too.

Contrast that with The Capitol. This setting glistens in the sunlight, has tall buildings that sparkle, and it has beautiful people painted in bright colors. The Capitol appears to be magical, but we learn it is all a facade.

Do you think the author created these settings by accident? Of course not. The forest setting reveals something about the protagonist and the Capitol setting reveals something about the antagonist. How would the story have been different if during the games the tributes dealt with a blizzard? Think about the challenges. That's why setting matters.

In my book, "The Children Under the Ice" I set my story in a small town in northern Minnesota at the end of fall. Gee, what happens in Minnesota in the winter? I needed my murder mystery to be set in the cold, dark, brutal winters to contrast with my protagonist's dreams: he hates the cold, he hates hockey on the frozen pond, and he longs for the greens of summer! How does this all reveal something about my protagonist? His mom left him and his dad alone (a cold harsh reality of life). His dad cannot cook (another harsh reality of divorce). So Mikey dreams of the backyard cookouts in the summer time surrounded with his mom's delicious food, green grass, and warmth of family and sunshine.

We see the importance of setting in Dicken's classic "A Christmas Carol" which is set on the streets of London in winter. Dickens, a child of poverty who had to work at age 12 to help his family, knew the cold harsh reality of the streets in winter. The setting's harshness mirrored the cruel darkness of Scrooge's heart in contrast with the joys and bright colors of Christmas that most of us understand.

See the contrast? See why it matters?

Once Upon a Time...

When your story takes place is just as important as where.

"The Hunger Games" works well for the reader because it is set in the future. Suzanne Collins wanted to send a message to her readers that perhaps the actual government plan is for teens to figuratively destroy one another as they dream of that perfect life of fame and fortune. We see it all the time: young people become famous then destroy themselves and each other. Sad truth.

I set "The Children Under the Ice" in 1976 because, as a child of the 70's, those were the times I remember well. Times when kids could stay out late without worrying about strangers...or could they? Was that feeling of safety just an illusion?

See how it works?

The setting of you story isn't just about a place, but a period in time. It's about the people, their customs, the way they behave.

The setting of your story should connect to your protagonist and antagonist. It should reveal something about the characters. The setting should reveal something about the author's tone. We sense this in "The Hunger Games". We sense Collins' feelings about government. We sense the tone of Dickens in that Scrooge is rich and powerful, lording his power over the poor. Was Dickens trying to tell his readers something about his feelings for the rich?

Now, before you write your story, think about the setting. Why is it set there? Why is the story happening in the past, present, or future? What are the connections between setting and characters? What does your setting reveal about your characters? About your tone?

You should be able to answer those questions for your readers in your story. If not, your readers won't bother to keep turning the pages of your book.

And no writer wants that!



  1. This is a great discussion of setting and its connection to the characters in your story.

    1. Thanks Dana! Setting is often overlooked but essential in storytelling.