A discussion of why setting matters in fiction
Do you have any idea where any of these stories takes place?
Asking these questions about a blurb, you can see how important setting is to fiction.
With the exception of the last one, retreating to a beach house, there’s very little about setting in any of these. They could be happening anywhere.
Or could they?
How would the stories described above change if they took place in a small town vs a big city? At a start-up versus a conglomerate? In the past rather than today? Note: names and titles have been redacted to protect the innocent. I’m only interested in making a point about the lack of setting.
In scenario one, imagine the business deal is set in a small town and not a large city. Do you see a different cast of characters? A different sequence of events?
In scenario two, is there any difference if the story takes place in the past (say the Regency period) instead of present day? The friendship could still happen, but my goodness, the matriarchs’ tongues would be wagging something fierce.
In scenario three, with CEOs and moguls and a chemistry research lab, is there any possibility this takes place anywhere but a city? But what an amazing impact a different setting – like a Mars colony – could have to make this plot stand out, don’t you think?
In scenario four, retreating to a cabin would be very different if what she was retreating from is a nasty small town gossip circle.
To make your setting matter, consider not only the where, as in the physical place, but also the host of “characters” and situations that tend to be found in the different setting.
Here’s a list of character tropes that can appear in all kinds of stories. Many though, are found in primarily one type of setting (that’s why it’s a trope), but can you think of other settings — and another character type — who could fill that role for the story’s central plot?
To develop a story that needs it’s setting – “it can’t happen anywhere else” – draw attention to very specific things that make that setting unique from other places. Think about the skylines quiz. People know they’re flying in to Chicago, or New York, or driving into a small town, because of landmarks that stand out and don’t appear anywhere else.
What if you’re making up your town? Dig into the organic way most towns grow — from family named streets to the actual out-of-service mill on Mill Road, and the family named and owned businesses – or the big city franchiser who comes in and sets up the lone Starbucks, and how that affects the fabric of the town, the way people relate to each other. A lot of the “isms” are handled differently in small towns versus cities, not better/worse, but simply different. When you draw out your town in your descriptions, use these observations and your story will suddenly have readers saying, “That could only happen here.”