The Importance of Setting

Choosing a setting is not usually the first narrative decision I make when I sit down to write a story.  I usually have an idea of what I need in my mind – France in the 18th century, for example, or Big Town, Little Town – and start crafting the story.  It isn’t until a plot crisis happens – ok, my characters need to go from Point A to Point B, what does that look like? – that I start to think seriously about where my story is set.

It’s ok to postpone some decisions to the revision stage.  I have trouble pumping out words per day, so my goal is just to writewritewrite until I have something to edit.  But I’m starting to rethink the way I outline and by extension the order in which I make narrative choices.

In my writing group this week, a woman writing self-aware chick lit (as in, she is aware of the boundaries, limitations and possibilities of placing her work in this genre) shared the opening to her novel, which is set in Houston.  One of critiques was that about a line that said something about Houston, the fourth largest city in America.  I said that I thought it was a clever line because it implies that the narrator is having trouble finding a fish in such a large ocean (or whatever that expression is) and also my relief that her book wasn’t going to be set in New York, much like all the other 30-and-single books that seem to think that all the single people live in Manhattan.

Another person responded and said that, yes, while we live in Houston and know how big it is (though some of the people present did not realize it was THAT big), to outsiders Houston is that place where all the people wear cowboy hats, have ranches and ride horses to school.  I’m not kidding.  You yourself may have that same cultural assumption.  The reader with this image in her head would imagine a completely different city than Houston and would be unlikely to read the narrative in the way the author intended.

What is the risk, then, associated with settings?  Some genres have narrative conventions: cozy mysteries tend to be set in small-town America, settings for scifi and fantasy are for the most part limited only by the writer’s imagination, and historical fiction is limited not only in time but also in space.  But for those genres with a bit more flexibility, how do you choose where to place your story?  What choices do writers make when deciding upon a location, and what effect does this have on the narrative or plot?

One of my favorite books, Monsters of Templeton, is in a made-up city based on Lauren Groff’s hometown, Cooperstown, NY.  The setting almost becomes another character in the story.  Without Templeton,  Monsters would not succeed.  Should all writers have their own version of Templeton – a setting that becomes a character?


One thought on “The Importance of Setting

  1. Neurotic Workaholic says:

    The stories I've been writing lately have all been set in Chicago, because that's my adopted hometown. Not to mention it would be hard to write about a city that I've never been to or that I've only visited for a few days. But setting is important; I like your statement in particular about "setting that becomes a character". I think that it's important because it can affect the storyline itself. Consider how a lot of horror stories are often set in isolated areas, which makes them scarier to a lot of people apparently.

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