Wednesday, May 12, 2010

All About Setting

So today I'm going to talk about setting. As in, where your story takes place. At my recent SCBWI conference, agent Beth Fleisher of Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency, Inc. spoke on the importance of setting in your ms. Here's some of what she had to say:

Setting makes a story unique. (Which helps with sales.)
Look at something like, Titanic. If you take away the boat, you just have a pretty common story about forbidden love between a poor boy and rich girl who's supposed to marry someone else. It's a story we've seen a thousand times, but never on the biggest, most opulent boat ever, or in the middle of the ocean.

In a good book, setting informs character and plot.
Setting can give the character's view of the world, and show so much about a character without explicitly saying so.

In Beautiful Creatures, (a book that's dripping with setting - so much that it's almost another character in the book) the setting tells us so much about Ethan, and the townspeople just from it's description. We know it's small, and hot, and steeped in history, all of which gives us a sense of what kind of people live there.

In Twilight, the rainy weather gives us hints about character and plot early on. We notice that The Cullens are never in school when it's sunny long before we find out why.

Setting has an external function.
Think again about Titanic. Once the ship hits the iceberg the setting becomes the major motivator for all of the characters' actions. Jack and Rose are no longer focused on being a couple, they're fighting to stay alive together. The setting moves the plot along.

Setting can be used to set up a juxtaposition, which can be powerful and moving.
One example of this that has always stuck with me is September 11, 2001 was a beautiful day in New York City. Then the terror attack happened. It was surreal to see the bright blue sky and sunshine while there was so much horror and tragedy going on. It felt like it should be a dark, bleak day, but it wasn't, and in some ways that made it worse. Bad things aren't supposed to happen on beautiful days.

On a smaller scale, think of a girl getting dumped inside the most beautiful prom ever, in the most perfect dress. Or standing on a beach in Hawaii and getting a phone call that their mother is in the hospital. The reverse can work too. Stranded and freezing cold in a rain storm, a girl learns her crush is in love with her and suddenly she doesn't even notice the rain anymore.

Setting is the soul of the book.
You can use your setting to build a sense of intensity and fear, or romance. In most cases, it should work invisibly with the plot. Use your setting to build your atmosphere.

Everything must serve the book.
Don't be afraid to create your own setting. Even in a contemporary, realistic story. If there's no town or place that fits your needs, make one up! Just be sure to do your research, especially if you're setting your fictional town in an area you've never been.


  1. Great post and that's awesome you're donating a screenwriting critique! I agree the setting is SO important. In fact, I wrote the entire 1st draft of my wip with no setting, because I hadn't found the perfect place. One week after finishing the first draft, I went on a trip and it was like "Whoa, this is where my story happened." I went home and rewrote the whole thing, feeling like a huge piece had fallen into place.

  2. Great post and great examples! BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, SHADOWED SUMMER and BLEEDING VIOLET all have great settings.

    One of the things I love about my most recent WIP is the setting.

  3. Ooohh yeah, Val! Setting is the backbone. Great post.
    And ps, I'm so sad I've yet to tap into my inner screenwriter because I'd love to bid on a critique from you.

  4. Candy, check back in a few days because we will be auctioning a critique from all three of us!

  5. Great post! Very true that setting is the soul of the book. I love the example you gave on the Titanic. Just shows how powerful the setting contributes to the message of the story :)

    I recently wrote a post on setting also, you can check it out of you'd like:


  6. I never realized (until not that long ago) how valuable setting can be in paralleling your story or even, as you point out, in furthering the plot. It's not often talked about but important!


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