How Important Is Setting To A Story?

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.

Lionel's office1

Credit: Trapword.com

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.

Lionel's office2

Credit: Dailymail.co.uk

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 Hunger Games: The Official Illustrated Movie Companion

Credit: fanpop.com

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.

capitol

Credit: thehungergames.wikia.com

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?

 

21 thoughts on “How Important Is Setting To A Story?

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  4. My book Time Trip: A Dinosaur Musical is a play, so I had to describe the setting within the dialogue or song lyrics. The story starts in the year 2121, at an airfield outside a place called the International Science Center. In the next scene, the characters arrive in a rocky, wooded area, 66 million years ago. Then they return to the Science Center for the final scene.

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      • The scientists in the story are amazed by what they see in the Cretaceous period, so a lot of the dialogue is of the “wow, look at this” variety. Some of the descriptive dialogue relates to how these characters plan to keep safe– they park their time machine next to some trees so the dinosaurs don’t stomp on it and then they go up on a ridge where they can observe the dinosaurs without being eaten. The hardest part was keeping each character’s lines to a minimum because the kids playing these roles had to memorize all of it.

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  5. I’m probably a minimalist (most of the time) when it comes to setting and character description, because… I kinda forget to do it. On purpose. My stories are typically everyday people in everyday circumstances, so readers can fill in the basics for themselves.

    I wrote a book where a guy is considered really good looking, but I intentionally didn’t describe him because, hey, if you like ‘em, tall dark and handsome and I make him blonde, he’s not quite as attractive to you as he would be if I don’t say. I want the reader engaged and using their imagination. They gathered that Mike was good looking by what other characters said about him. Sneaky, huh?

    Same with the family car in another story. Is it red? Is it black? Is it a sedan or a minivan? Doesn’t matter because the five-year-old kid and the mom get in the back seat and the dad drives and nobody cares what color the car is because it doesn’t matter to the plot. I hope readers imagine their own car.

    By not going on and on about what the characters and settings look like, it has a greater impact when I do. When I go into tremendous detail about Julietta’s beauty in Poggibonsi, it’s because the MC is irrationally taken with her and he is borderline obsessing about her. He notices everything about her, when he doesn’t do that almost anywhere else in the story—which should be a signal to readers that this is important.

    The other places where he goes into great detail? When he first arrives in Venice and is taken by its beauty, and when he sees a Tuscan mansion undergoing a remodel. He spends a lot of time noticing the decaying old building and the beautiful remodeled one next door, and understands what is possible when somebody invests time and love. That’s why he’s in Italy, to rekindle the passion in his marriage. (Things don’t quite work out that way, though.)

    I also don’t describe things we all know and take for granted, hoping readers know those things, too. Breathing and blinking are givens in a living person. We all breathe, we all blink. No need to mention it. So when a character takes a DEEP breath, that DIFFERENCE is noted—and hopefully creates the impression I intended.

    When I don’t want to be a minimalist, I go into a LOT of detail. In The Water Tower, modern-day Gina finds visits an old tower and discovers a portal back to the 1600s. The smells of the musty old tower and the buzzing of cicadas in the trees, the heat, the dirty floors, all go to bring as many senses into play as possible. Gina’s modern world is barely described to readers; the 1600s are explained in great detail. I did that to show how much more interested she was in the old world than the new world, and that maybe she belonged there more than she did her own time.

    I like thinking about settings as a character. My beta readers for Poggibonsi said it felt like they were in Tuscany, with one saying I made Italy a great character in the story.

    Good. Then I did it right.

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    • I think this point is key: By not going on and on about what the characters and settings look like, it has a greater impact when I do.

      I’m with you on being light on descriptions, and pretty much for the same reasons. If readers imagine a Civic and then I describe the car as a Suburban, it takes them out of the story for a moment. Better to let readers imagine the details of the mundane so they pay more attention to the unusual when you describe it. I know any time I read a setting that’s in a house, I imagine either the house I grew up in or one of my friend’s houses. There’s no rhyme or reason to which one my brain picks. And it doesn’t matter. But if the setting is in a castle 400 years ago, I need the descriptions because I don’t have any background knowledge of those things.

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      • Right. If the author says a house, I probably imagine the house I grew up in. That’s why when I read “the red 4-door Jeep Wrangler pulled up tho the yellow, 3 bedroom 2 baths split level ranch” I’m like whyyyy??? Why do I need to know that and why do I need to know it right now?

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  6. Love the mnemonic. Perfect, even for an adult like me.

    I think that the proper setting is vital if you want to have a well-rounded character in your story. My [amateur] passion is for interior design so I always notice the details in a room, town, whatever. I’ve often thought that the reason people in real life don’t invite you into their homes is because they don’t want you to know exactly who they are. But as an author you can easily show us exactly who your character is with the setting.

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      • I stumbled across that connection by accident when one day a woman who I’ve always thought was off her nut, showed my photos of her newly redecorated house. It was a nightmare of mismatched furniture and colors. Absolutely deranged. And suddenly, the connection dawned on me.

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  7. Very much so, I just released a book that is supposed to be set in post world war II London. Hard to sell that without the background for it to play against. I researched a lot about the times, about London in particular, about the nobelesse, so that I could have even my throw away lines give the flavor and place correctly, have it evoke the right senses. I have several major scenes that take place in the war in a film script the main character is writing and I found I had to break film script protocol and add lots of setting to bring people back to that time, to the medicine that was cutting edge then, to the proper horror of that war. Great piece on setting, thanks for sharing.

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