Setting is vital to any story. It creates the story’s backdrop and includes elements such as the mood of the story, historical context… right down to how the story people talk and what they believe in. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that creating a good setting for your piece of work does involve a bit of technique.
In the first chapter of his book simply titled, ‘Setting’, Jack M Bickham covers six vital contributions to creating a good setting.
“Writers generally recognise that good handling of a proper setting can ‘decorate’ a story. Thus enhancing its colour and general appeal as well as making it more convincing,” states Jack. “Less often realised, however, are the following additional contributions setting can make.”
- Intensification of reader involvement: “Reader involvement may be intensified by proper handling of setting because physical, sensory descriptions of the story world allow the reader to experience those surroundings through his own imagination – as if he were ‘really there’… Vivid, evocative physical description of setting can transport the reader into the story’s universe.”
- Enhancement of story unity: “A story line may involve complex developments affecting a wide variety of characters,” states Jack. “A consistent setting can provide an unchanging backdrop against which even otherwise unrelated story developments or characters will be seen as related simply because they are taking place on the same stage… Setting can provide a unifying background scenery.”
- Tightening of plot structure and/or intensification of suspense: “Plot and suspense can be advanced and complicated by setting,” States Jack. “Your descriptions of the subtly changing scenery… [shows] how the story is advancing towards its ultimate conclusion. If the reader knows that hostile Indians await in the mountain pass ahead, your repetitive mention of the mountains will become a drumbeat of suspense.”
- Motivation or explanation of character: “Character is significantly linked to setting,” states Jack. “The seafaring whaling world of Moby Dick, for example, is crucial to an understanding of Captain Ahab and his mad quest for the white whale. Outside of the specialised setting, Melville defines, Ahab’s obsession makes no sense at all.”
- Clarification of Theme: “Theme can also be affected by setting,” states Jack. “The setting can become a central symbol or metaphor, not only unifying other aspects of the story but illuminating its central idea. When Huck and Tom step onto their raft and set out down the Mississippi, their voyage becomes a story of life in microcosm. The river setting, so rich in religious and American symbolism, becomes more than a river, Huck’s journey finally becoming a voyage into manhood – and life.”
- Excitement of the writer’s own imagination: “The writer’s imagination can benefit from setting research,” states Jack. “Very often, researching factual information for a story, or visiting an actual site to experience it physically, will fire her imagination in unexpected ways.”
The book goes on to cover each point more in depth, but it just goes to show, as Jack himself mentions, “Your handling of setting may be more vital to your fiction project than you had previously suspected.”
Source: Setting by Jack M Bickham