Setting: The Oft-Forgotten — But Essential — Element of Story

Setting
© Salima Alikhan 2020

An honest story is at home in one, and only one, place and time.

—Robert McKee, Story

When writers ask what an agent or editor is looking for in a manuscript, more times than not the reply is voice. And this holds true for me as well…with one caveat. From my perspective, story is inextricably linked to setting. Ergo, voice must be intimately infused with the story’s setting, in both time and place.

Time and place. When and where. These seem such simple pieces of the story puzzle. However, all too often, I read manuscripts that are lacking a clear setting or seem to suggest their story is set in contemporary Anywhere, America.

But what author—and reader—must know right from the start is where, precisely, their story takes place. Without knowing this, how does a writer make story decisions? This is a sincere question. It’s difficult for me to see characters without understanding their choices, moving around in an undefined white space, encountering arbitrary obstacles.

Cobblestone street lined with painted houses
Photo by Ugur Peker on Unsplash.

Robert McKee’s Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting is a wonderful resource for contemplating setting. He breaks down setting as having four distinct values:

  1. Period – This is the time period in which a story is set (historical, contemporary, future, alternative/unknown)
  2. Duration – Time in which the story spans (over years, months, days, hours)
  3. Location – Specific geography/landscape where story takes place (includes town, buildings, or multiple locations/journey)
  4. Level of conflict – The story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles (from inner conflicts to battles with institutions in society)

Each one of these, he argues, must be so deeply understood by the author that, without them, the
story loses authenticity. McKee posits that,

By the time you finish your last draft, you must possess a commanding knowledge of your setting in such depth and detail that no one could raise a questions about your world — from the eating habits of your characters to the weather in September — that you couldn’t answer instantly.

When diving into queries and first pages, I yearn to be pulled into carefully crafted worlds where these four creation rules are carefully considered, crafted, and consistently followed — and where the characters are acting within these designated setting parameters.

Often, these rules are thought only important for writers of speculative or historical fiction and are overlooked by contemporary fiction writers. However, all stories must operate within the confines of their settings. Consider these possibilities:

  • What a character keeps as a good luck charm in his pocket in modern-day Lancaster, PA will look very different from the charm kept in the pocket of 1930s Richmond, VA. How do surroundings and period alter and limit these possibilities?
  • The weather on a June day in Maine will look very different from Miami, and therefore so will your character’s choices of transportation, clothing, evening activities. Will they eat tacos or lobster rolls? Surf or sail? Wear tank tops or sweaters?
  • Does your character live in a Vermont mountain cottage with a large vegetable garden, or an apartment in DC over a take-out restaurant? How do these setting choices impact the food they eat, the social choices they have, their hopes for the future? What does home smell/feel/sound like?

From the large-scale places found in landscape, region, town to the smaller scale of the neighborhood, school/buildings, home, bedroom, each and every setting decision will inform how characters interact with their surroundings, the obstacles and stakes setting creates, and the limits in which a character can act to control — or break from — their surroundings.

And getting back to voice: while narrative does not need to be fully colloquial, it should sound syntactically unique for the setting. Choices of slang, nicknames, place names, even maturity of voice will be affected by setting.

Blue Volkswagen Beetle parked on a street
Photo by Andrew Kambel on Unsplash.

I admit, I’m particularly drawn to setting-rich stories where the author uses landscape as character or writes with an authentic, colloquial voice. Some of my favorites include Southern settings invoked by Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, folklore-inspired stories such as Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, vivid urban landscapes found in Coe Booth and Jason Reynolds’s YA contemporary books, setting-rich MG written by Uma Krishnaswami, the rich historical settings of Julie Berry’s books, and the earthy fantastical tales of Kelly Barnhill and Franny Billingsley, among many others. 

These books stand out as immediately gripping the reader, pulling them into a vividly imagined world that feels both authentic and organic. From the first page, I know I’m in good hands. I know this is a story to make time for.

Take a look at your own work in progress. Walk in the front door of your character’s space, feel the weather on your cheeks, take a sip of their favorite drink. Eavesdrop on a group of locals at the diner. What does your world smell, sound, taste, feel like? Can you envision it the way you hope your readers will? If not, perhaps you’ve forgotten that all-important element of story: setting. 

Step back and evaluate your world with a cinematic eye and address the four areas McKee’s outlined above. Where must this story take place? Build your world intentionally. Don’t stop until you know it as intimately as your own neighborhood, home, and writing space.

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