Back when I was an elementary school teacher, I created a mnemonic device to help my students remember to include all the story elements in their retells: Cows See Pretty Sunflowers.
I didn’t say it was a great mnemonic. But it worked.
Cows = Characters
See = Setting
Pretty = Problem
Sunflowers = Solution
They drew pictures of the mnemonic, and they rehearsed the meaning. Before long, my eight-year-old students were offering detailed descriptions of the stories they read that included each of these parts.
Why was it so important for the students to remember these?
Because if one is missing, there isn’t a story.
I’ve talked about characters quite a bit on this blog, and with good reason. Characters often drive the story. But I decided the other elements deserve some space here too. Today, we start with setting.
A common piece of writing advice is to treat the setting like another character, meaning the setting itself should also act on the story. There are some stories where the setting is also the problem – Titanic, Jurassic Park, and Lord of the Rings come to mind.
But a setting doesn’t need to be so dramatic to impact the story.
One of my top five favorite movies is The King’s Speech. The story itself is compelling, but have you ever noticed the settings?
Sure, the palace was beautiful and the rainy park set the mood, but my favorite setting is Lionel’s office.
I mean, look at it.
The walls are a disaster. The rug is about a hundred years old. Is that a plane on the floor? And look at this next pic.
The huge fireplace houses a small kettle and fire tending implements that must be unused, since the kettle is there. And the lamp is on the floor. Maybe because the table is too cluttered? I think it’s because Lionel decided the lamp needed to be on the floor.
I love this setting because it says so much about Lionel’s character. He has no pretension. There is no difference in station in his space. He likes things the way he likes them: simple and without justification. It further shows the contrast of George’s character. He’s used to fancy palaces and probably no dust. Lionel’s office immediately makes him uncomfortable, which is fabulous for storytelling potential.
The Hunger Games offers more examples of settings directly impacting the story: District 12, The Capitol, and of course, the arena – though the arena was also part of the problem, especially in the book version when Katniss nearly died of thirst.
Let’s start with District 12.
The story is set in a dystopian future, but this could be any rundown ghost town in the middle of the Appalachians. The first things I notice are the rust and peeling paint. And we know from the story that the electric fence doesn’t work – until it does. Conditions in the district are constant reminders of oppression and injustice.
Compare that to The Capitol.
It’s modern, clean, fully powered, and is home to countless privileged and oddly dressed people. Their world is one where they watch murder for fun and make themselves vomit so they can eat more of their rich foods (like ancient Rome on both counts, interestingly). Katniss focuses on her mission and allows the excesses of The Capitol to bounce off her for the most part, though in the book she greatly enjoys the food, as any proper teenager should. In going to The Capitol before the arena, she gains an understanding of a different world, one that happily allows her people to suffer. And in doing that, she figures out how to beat them.
What does this all mean to writers?
Setting, like anything else in your book, must serve the story. I tend to be a minimalist in my setting descriptions unless there’s something unusual. I don’t need to describe the living room, but I will if someone keeps a table lamp on the floor.
Sometimes, the story requires more setting descriptions. Setting was crucial in Drake and the Fliers, because it takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which most of humanity was obliterated by a virus. What kind of world would they leave behind? What would happen to the cities after years of neglect? How do the characters survive and interact within it? How does this new world impact the plot? I had to answer all of these questions throughout the narrative. The setting was so important to the story that the story wouldn’t have worked if I changed it.
In preparing to write this post, I brainstormed books and movies that utilize setting to great effect. I thought of those where the setting is crucial to the execution of a plan (Ocean’s 11, Mockingjay), or present a fantastical new world (Harry Potter), or directly cause a character’s downfall (The Shining). Others, like The King’s Speech, reveal character (Stranger Than Fiction) or tap into our human experiences, offering a sense of nostalgia (A League of Their Own, A Christmas Story). I’m sure you can think of others, so I leave the question to you:
What stories do you think use setting in such a way that the story wouldn’t work in a different time or place?
And also this question:
How have you used setting in your own writing?