Make Setting Meaningful by Kay Keppler
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist, editor, and novelist, Kay Keppler, as she shares with us “Make Setting Meaningful.” Enjoy! This is a wonderful and useful class. So, post in the comments any questions or share you have about using these questions for your story.
Setting is a crucial part of any story. A while ago, I said it could be handled essentially as a character—for example, by using it to focus on the senses and build emotion. But you can also make your story placement meaningful, not just convenient. You want your setting to be more than a backdrop for events.
To do that, you need to develop your protagonist’s (or your antagonist’s) relationship to the setting. Think about how your plot and your characters interact with the environment. If the story is set in the country, is one a woodsman and the other a city slicker? Look for conflict and character-building opportunities. Ask yourself a few basic questions.
How big—and how controlling—is your setting?
A setting can be as small as a living room or as big as a galaxy, but if it’s a real setting, it will try somehow to control its inhabitants. How hard is it to leave? (To see a great example of this structure on film, check out the 1962 Luis Bunuel surrealist farce, The Exterminating Angel. In it, upper-class dinner guests find that for some unknown reason, they cannot leave the room. As days pass, the elaborate pretenses that they’ve built up by virtue of their wealth collapse as they’re reduced to living like animals. It’s a weird movie, but unforgettable.) Other questions to consider: How much deviation from the norm does the culture allow? What are the sanctions against those who don’t conform? How much, and in what ways, will these sanctions affect your protagonist?
What does your plot require of the setting?
Must your story be set in a rural environment, or could it be set in a city? If it could be set anywhere, think about sharpening your plot to take advantage of its location. Must your story be set in winter? During the rainy season? Consider the potential consequences of your requirements: A rural environment might mean poor cell service, few services, or little anonymity.
What is your protagonist’s relationship to the setting?
If your book is set in a rural area, is your protagonist from there? Or is she an outsider? Do locals accept her? How much? Does she fit in? Or is she a fish out of water? Or does her large farm means she’s the wealthiest woman in town?
How does your story change?
Maybe the hedge fund manager decides to throw in the towel with the farm and gives the place to her hard-working farmhand. Or maybe the rainy season precipitates a flood and all the crops are washed out. Then what happens?
What aspects of this setting would seem strange to an outsider?
An Amish farmer’s life would look strange to a modern rancher. A modern rancher’s life would look strange to a city slicker. How will these aspects affect your protagonist?
What is the basic family unit?
Consider the impact the family unit had on the protagonist. A boy from a large extended farm family might grow up feeling part of a cohesive group with a clear and uniform goal, which enables him to form community wherever he goes. Maybe he becomes a union organizer, or a preacher. People react to their backgrounds even as they are shaped by them, which can be a handy source of conflict.
What does this setting value most in its citizens?
Hard work? New machinery? Piety? Wealth? Community spirit? Reproductive prowess? Does your protagonist possess this quality? Does he want to? What will she do to get it and what are the consequences of not having it?
What is your protagonist’s goal, and how does the setting interfere?
Perhaps the farmer’s daughter wants to be a dancer in New York City, but her parents need her to work on the farm. What resources does the setting give the protagonist? Perhaps the farm gives the would-be dancer the financial stability to spread her wings.
How can the conflict with the culture be resolved?
Must the protagonist leave? Change the culture? Change himself?
Setting can help you establish who your characters are and why they must strive to get what they want—as well as help you showcase their endeavors. Used well, settings will make your stories deeper and richer. Good luck!
Kay’s post on making setting meaningful is a wonderful and useful class. So, post in the comments any questions or share you have about using these questions for your story. Then I (Beth Barany) or Kay will comment back.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She lives in northern California. Contact her here at Writer’s Fun Zone in the comments below, or at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask questions, suggest topics, or if you prefer, complain.