Setting in fiction

Writing question of the day: How important is setting in a fiction manuscript?

Recommended reading: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I’ve already discussed about setting in non-fiction and poetic works for children, and its importance still reigns in a regular good-ole fiction book. The story can revolve around a main character and those who surround the main character, and it can revolve around the plot, but the setting provides the visceral layer to the story.

Setting is what allows the reader to walk the same streets as the main character. This happened in Thirteen Reasons Why as Clay Jensen walked Hannah Baker’s streets. Sure, he could have just been sitting thinking about the different places, but if he did not actually go to them, and feel what Hannah felt when she was there, it would not have affected him as much. In this story, we actually have two settings, Clay’s setting and Hannah’s setting. It is the intertwining of the two that makes such a beautiful story.

Setting is not just “a desk was here,” “my house is there,” “I go to school here.” It is a part of the character and of the character’s story. If the main setting changes, the story changes. Imagine The Catcher in The Rye not in New York City, or The Chronicles of Narnia not in Narnia, or Harry Potter not in England, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not in the South. It changes the story – maybe not wholly, but substantially. Location is more than a physical world, it is history, culture, stereotypes, and pre-set notions.

Those are examples of longer reads, but even in a picture book the setting is important. You may not know the city or the exact place, but the sights and sounds of the main character need to become the sights and sounds of the reader as well. One of my favorite picture books is The Snowy Day. I don’t know what city it is in, but the setting of the snow-covered outside Peter traipsed through is integral to the story.

Think about setting in your own story. Does it matter? If you changed the setting, how much would it change the story? Drastically? Somewhat? Not at all? Try it in another setting. Not then whole work, but a scene or two. If you are writing a book set in Nevada, put it in Connecticut instead. Or if a scene takes place in a school gym, try it at the doctor’s office and see what you think.

Consider the nuances of setting too. Speech is a huge part of setting. It’s not just formed by where someone lives, but by what they are experiencing as well. If it is extreme weather, your characters will not just act but speak differently whether it is sweltering hot or freezing cold. Dialect is of course another form of speech setting. I am from the South, and in my own writing I have been told to take out or rephrase certain words or phrases because they don’t make sense. Hmmmph. That never makes me happy to read, but it’s something we need to consider when writing. The first is that will everyone understand what you are saying if you are using regional language. The second (and more important to me) is will those from the area feel like you have represented them correctly. If not, you could have bigger challenges.

Good reading, and good writing.

Amy

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