I’m taking an online writing course at the moment and the last assignment was about setting.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never paid a lot of attention to setting, plot and character seemed the important part of a story.
Though having said that, I did recently write a short story about the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl, and that setting had a huge impact on my characters.
I used the setting almost like an additional character in the story.
That’s what the teacher in this course was saying.
Setting is more than the third component in the magical storytelling triangle of: character, plot, and setting.
She doesn’t see setting as separate. Setting is the backdrop for all other aspects of your story, and it shouldn’t be passive.
It shouldn’t be creative descriptions of rain and wind and waves. It needs to be more than that.
Your setting can dictate mood. For example, if your characters are driving in a car in the mountains, maybe the mountains are towering on each side of the car, and they are driving through a dark ravine.
This can create a certain kind of mood which can drive plot and dialogue which can impact on characterisation.
Or maybe your characters are in the mountains and they come around a bend and they have this spectacular, majestic view of the sunny picturesque valley below.
This again might change the mood, move the plot along.
Or the mountains might be used to create foreshadowing of future events in the story.
Or back story. They can force your character to reveal things they may not have otherwise, thus building on characterisation.
It can also act as metaphor. Mountains reaching toward the sky could symbolise dreams or aspirations of your characters.
According to the teacher, setting in fiction needs to be much more than setting in real life.
It should have meaning and should impact on the story.
It should not be some extraneous bit of writing that allows the writer to show off a bit linguistically. Never.
That sort of indulgence must be vigorously fought against.
If the writer is taking time with the setting it should move the story in some way. The setting should count.
According to the teacher, and I agree, setting should also resonate.
There should be visual resonance, thematic resonance, and psychological resonance.
Writers should not be pulled into believing only grand settings should be allowed in fiction: along the Seine in Paris, in the Okavango Delta, on a windswept bit of desert.
I room in a house can have as much drama and resonance as any other setting if significant details are used effectively.
Think of the difference of these two settings.
A sitting room with empty beer cans all around, and a single baby shoe in the corner.
The mother is crying in the corner, planning her child’s funeral.
Or a sitting room, absolutely tidy, not a speck of dust, not a chair out of place, and a man sitting, his hands in his lap, waiting for his daughter to arrive.
Two sitting rooms, two parents, two children. Each setting pulling different feelings from the reader.
The significant details of the settings chosen by the writer pull out additionally meaning that may not be coming from the narrative or the dialogue.
This course has really made me see setting in a completely different way; this is what is so nice about taking periodic writing courses.
I like to make sure I attend at least one writing course a year for that very reason.
If I cannot attend physically, there are many very good courses online.
In this case, I’m taking one at the University of Iowa and I’d recommend it.