Story Elements Series: Setting

by Lana Krumwiede

“When you choose setting, you had better 
choose it wisely and well, 

because the very choice defines–
and circumscribes–
your story’s possibilities.”
– Jack Bickham
A sign of a great story is one that couldn’t happen in any other place.
Could Harry Potter have grown up in Waco, Texas? Um . . . no.
I feel like setting never gets enough credit. I hear writers talk about agonizing over characters and wrestling with plot, but what about setting? Imagine, for example, a story about a missing child. Now imagine that story taking place in the dust bowl of Oklahoma during the 1930’s. This time imagine a missing child story that takes place in an urban, contemporary setting, say New York City. Now make that New York City in September of 2001. What about a child who goes missing in a lunar colony in the year 2109? Or in the jungles of Vietnam in the 1970’s? 
 
Each of these missing child stories would be very different. Setting has a huge effect on characters, their roles in society, the choices they have, the resources they have access to, their attitudes and sensibilities. It also circumscribes, to use Mr. Bickham’s verb, the playing field for the plot. Setting will dictate things like transportation, communication, weather and climate, geography, flora and fauna.
 
Use setting for all it’s worth. If you get stuck, take close look at your setting. It can bail you out. It can present new courses of action. It can provide interesting details to will draw readers in. It can inject energy into the story. Here are some specific examples of what setting can do:
 
1. Advance the plot. Changing the setting (or some aspect of it) can give the story a sense of movement and progression. Even if it’s the same room, you can change the lighting, the time of day, the weather, or some such thing. 
 
2. Challenge and shape a character. Think about the places that played a significant role in your childhood. How did these places influence the person you have become? The same is true for the characters in your story.
 
3. Increase tension. Settings can create obstacles, things that frustrate your characters and complicate their attempts to solve a problem or accomplish a goal. Setting can also introduce something that demands immediate attention. 
 
4. Reflect a character’s state of mind. A rainstorm can be a source of healing and calm or it can be ominous, depending on how your character reacts to it. A writer can use the setting to reveal the character’s thoughts and feelings. 
 
What are some interesting ways you’ve seen writers use setting? 
 
 
 
 
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