Where Is As Important As What

I’ve touched on the importance of setting in a couple of other posts, but I thought it might be useful to consider some of the ways  the physical location and the social location (the community it takes place in) can affect your story.

Stop for a moment and think of a few movies where you found the settings particularly memorable. Why was that?

It was probably because the setting was thematically linked to the plot in some way. The best locations for stories symbolically reinforce the central character’s situation and desires.  A character who feels trapped, and lives in the shadow of a prison, or in a house full of locks and a high-tech alarm system,  finds her inner feelings mirrored in the physical setting. Alternatively, her desire for escape might be manifested in the flocks of birds that wheel over the garden every day, or the busy train station just across the road.

Additionally, choosing the right location can provide opportunities for the plot.  One of the key skills to writing action scenes for Hollywood movies is the ability to find the right setting for each scene. The confrontation between the hero and the villain in an ice cream shop will be very different to the same confrontation on a building site. There’ll be different objects to hand to use as weapons, different places to hide, different means of escape. You may not be writing action scenes, but in the same way, you can use the setting to provide the things you need to make your story work – obstacles, allies, enemies and problems.

Choosing the right setting can create a vivid social world for your central character to inhabit. If a key point in the story is your central character’s relationship with the neighbours, then you can have him living on a busy suburban street – or you might want to have only two cottages down an isolated country lane to intensify the relationship between two families. If the central character is going to try to kill his wife, then have them live somewhere that provides interesting opportunities for murder and for the disposal of the body.

It can introduce a unique element into a familiar story.  If the plot or even the characters of your story are fairly well-worn, you can create additional interest by placing the whole thing in an unusual physical or social setting. Instead of setting your family drama on a housing estate, why not locate it in the married quarters of an army base, or among the live-in staff of a public school?   Instead of a tough comprehensive, have your teacher teach at a Steiner school, or a specialist school for children with autism. A little research into this unfamiliar world, and you create a whole new level of interest for your readers.

A well-chosen setting gives a level of realism to a fantastical plot.  This is the approach we took with Wolfblood – everything’s the same as real life, except that some characters are Wolfbloods. The characters struggle with homework, friendships, parents and money troubles – oh, and a few other problems when the moon rises. The ordinary, everyday setting “grounds” our supernatural story in a world that feels familiar and real.

Alternatively, you can set the story in a fantastical version of reality, showing the reader that they’re entering into a new world where new rules apply. Alice In Wonderland shows us a fantastical version of Victorian society, where society is reflected in a distorting mirror and all the rules are changed. In contrast, The Water Babies sets a tale of the supernatural against the grim reality of life as a child chimney sweep. Both have extremely vivid, effective settings – they’re just different approaches.

So, how can you use a thematically appropriate, vivid setting to make your story stronger and more believable?

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2 comments on “Where Is As Important As What

  1. Dean Scott says:

    I like the idea of situation symbolising aspects of the character. I’ve never thought of this before, but i can see now that this is a good technique used in a few good shows.

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