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Monday, April 9, 2018

Maximizing or Minimizing Your Setting

As I touched on in my last post, setting is more important in some stories than in others. For example, if you are writing a wilderness survival story, setting might be an important component--a life-and-death component. In other stories, like many sitcoms for example, it's really not much of a key player. But whatever the case, it must (almost) always be present. After all, life doesn't happen in a void . . . unless of course you are writing a science fiction story.

Obviously in any story that has a strong "man vs. setting" conflict, setting is going to be important. This includes wilderness survival stories (think The Hatchet), but it may also include westerns, frontier stories, war eras, adventure stories (think Indiana Jones), journey stories (think The Hobbit), dystopian stories (Hunger Games) and plenty of others. As I mentioned before, back in the day, there was a whole genre called "local color" that was about capturing what a particular setting was like to live in and visit.

But the story doesn't have to be about the setting for it to play a significant role. Sometimes the role of setting is simply to transport the audience. Harry Potter isn't really "about" Hogwarts . . . but everyone who reads the books wants to go there. Once Twilight got big, Forks, Washington suddenly had plenty of tourism.

Setting can help with the tone of the story. A murder mystery set in Chicago is a lot different than one set behind-the-scenes at Disneyland.

But whatever setting you have, when it comes to writing, it's usually a good idea to expand your sense of setting in some way. It will make the story feel more authentic and the "world" feel bigger. It will transport your audience better, and help them experience the narrative.

David Farland teaches a great technique related to this. He says in the movie industry that with big budget films, they never want to use the same set piece twice if they can help it. For example, in a story about a king, one scene might take place in his bed chamber, another in the throne room, another in the dining hall, another in his personal hunting reserve, another in his courtyard. This expands or maximizes the setting. It let's the audience see different aspects of the "world" and keeps the film visually interesting.

The same can often be done with novels. Some stories naturally require that you maximize setting. In The Hobbit, we are following Bilbo travel through Middle-earth to face Smaug. We'll see the shire, but we'll also see forests, and mountains, and underground tunnels. Other stories may not necessarily require that, but almost beg for it because of their worldbuilding. The world is so interesting that the author really should find a way to have the character move about so the audience can behold it.

But even on a small scale, setting can be maximized to some degree. In The Office, almost the entire show takes place in the office (thus the title), but even that setting is somewhat expanded. We have the main room, but also Michael's office, the conference room, the break room, the warehouse, the parking lot, and some scenes take place in the elevator, on the stairs, or on the roof. Then we know Vance Refrigeration is nearby, they sometimes go to Poor Richard's, and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

Look for ways to add "set pieces" to you story to make the world feel bigger.

Another way to make the setting feel bigger is to give it a sense of history or a strong backstory. Even if the story takes place in the wilderness, you can still bring in a sense of history. You may mention how a canyon was carved out by a river over time, or signs of the previous season (ex. winter snow still melting). If your story takes place in a city, you can mention the city's origin as Suzanne Collins does in The Hunger Games with District 12 and then the Capitol. Or, you may even mimic J. R. R. Tolkien who essentially wrote an origin story for Middle-earth.

On the other hand, in some cases that are probably fewer and further in between, you may need to minimize your setting. See, big budget films may be able to film on a different set for each scene, but low budget films can't afford to. Some sitcoms have essentially the same three or five sets for the whole show. Luckily we don't work off the same budgets as films as fiction writers. However, we do have budgets of a sort. Words. Every time you introduce a new set piece, you'll probably have to spend some words describing it. You may end up spending more words on setting than your story can afford. Stories like The Hobbit can afford to spend more words on setting since that's largely what the story is about. Others may not be like that, and spending too many words on setting might slow the pacing of the story.

If your story is very long or you need to write short, then repeating set pieces for scenes will help cut down on length. Also, repeating set pieces can give the setting a stronger feeling of familiarity and may even be cozy or homey. After all, who doesn't want to revisit the four poster beds in Gryffindor tower, wake to breakfast in the Great Hall, and stroll by the lake and pumpkin patch in the afternoon?

It might be helpful to keep in mind that historical fiction and speculative fiction usually require a good chunk of words on setting in particular because of worldbuilding, which might influence how much you would like to expand or condense for your story.

Whatever the case, it may be more helpful to be consciously aware of how to maximize and how to minimize.


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