Setting: That can’t happen here

A discussion of why setting matters in fiction

Do you have any idea where any of these stories takes place?

Opposites attract?
In theory, maybe.
In reality, doubtful.
When my brother's best friend asks me to fake marry him to secure a business deal he desperatesly needs, I laugh in his face. Me help him? That's split-your-pants, rip-roaring hilarious. I don't even like him.
Besides, no one would believe I'm his wife. It's ridiculous.
He's tall, blonde, and attention-grabbing gorgeous. I'm short, curvy, awkward. And usually invisible. He's never met something he couldn't charm. I can barely talk to friends, much less strangers. He's a workaholic that lives and breathes money and business. I prefer to lose myself in my art.
Believability factor of us as a couple? Zero.
Have you ever heard of a man-in-waiting? Yeah neither has my best friend's soon-to-be monster-in-law. Ooo, sorry, I meant mother-in-law. Nor has she heard of the term, what the bride wants, the bride gets.
With wedding planning underway and a short timeline, my best friend has recruited me to help her battle the snarly beast that is her mother-in-law. Not scared at all, I accept the challenge as her man-in-waiting--aka, man of honor--and take matters into my own hands.
The only problem is, with every second we draw closer to the wedding, I'm starting to see my best girl in a different light.
Before I know what's happening, it hits me like a ton of bricks. I'm in love with my best friend. There's only one thing left for me to do. Prove to her I'm the one she should be with instead.
How can a geeky, brilliant, and hopelessly smitten cosmetic chemist possibly win over the man of her dreams, who also happens to be her boss? The answer is his empathetic and handsome CEO half-brother. The makeup mogul knows him for the ridiculously competitive rival he is. Whatever his brother has, he wants. That can be her, if she's game to play. All she and the brother have to do is pretend they're falling in love and let the rumors begin. If the experiment in attraction works, the jealous brother will swoop in and give her happily ever after--if it weren't for one hitch in the plan. There's more to the half-brother than meets the eye. With every fake date, feelings are starting to become dizzyingly real.
She has waited her whole life to become editor in chief of the magazine. But six months into the job, she overhears her coworkers belittling her. The clapback? A very public, career-jeopardizing meltdown. To undo the mess, she agrees to a monthlong unpaid leave.
Reluctant but determined to turn misfortune into opportunity, she retreats to the beach house her brother left her when he died. Except, when she arrives, she discovers her brother's slacker best friend inherited the place too.
He's unkempt, unmotivated, and totally uninterested in her desire to sell. Yet as battle lines are drawn, she wonders whether she and this wild card have more than her brother in common. Is she willing to swap her lifelong dreams for a shot at healing her broken heart?

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.

Option 1

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?

Option 2

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.”

~ Lara

Published by Lara Zielinsky

I have been writing and publishing for 20 years. I have been an editor of fiction for 15+ years. I am married, live in Florida and work from home full time as an editor.

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