In Defense of Setting
In conversation with other writers recently, I heard someone say (totally paraphrasing here), “I hate setting. It’s boring. I just want to write the good stuff, like characterization.” It is, of course, not the first time I’ve heard such a thing. In fact, what’s that old saying about if I had a nickel for every time…?
Still, it hurts my heart to hear this, because I am a setting kind of gal at the core. I have a heightened sense of place. I tend to fall deeply in love with places: Niagara Falls, Provincetown, Fire Island, Laupāhoehoe. For me, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as somewhere new, somewhere beautiful or dangerous or intriguing, and I’ve written many stories with plots born of places I visited. So for me, setting = place = inspiration. But apparently this is not true for everyone.
So I started to really think about why people are so quick to dismiss setting as a necessary evil, something to simply get through and move on to the 'good stuff.' Why don’t they see it as an integral element of story (which it is)? Why isn’t it considered the good stuff (which it absolutely, absolutely, absolutely is)?
Maybe it has to do with the feeling that writing setting is just dressing a stage, creating props, that setting itself is little more than a painted backdrop against which your characters will act out their drama. To many writers, setting is nothing more than the rickety wooden sets of a play, hammered and nailed, glued and painted into a facsimile of real life.
But oh, setting is so much more than that
Setting is the world. It’s your childhood home and the cool, deep thicket out back where you hid for hours, reading your favorite book. It’s the sun just peeking up over the ocean and the shooting star you wish on at night. It’s the ebb tide pulling sand from beneath your feet, and leaving hollows that tip you off balance.
Setting is the Eiffel Tower and the view from the top of the Empire State Building. It’s Grand Central Station and craggy island bluffs and the aurora borealis.
Setting is spring, summer, winter, fall. It’s rain and snow and the way the wind sounds like voices when you’re home alone late at night.
Setting is the creaking floorboard in the abandoned house on the hill and the single drop of blood on a white-tiled floor. Setting is the beep-beep-beep of machines and the smell of antiseptic and the horrible coldness of cement-block walls when someone you love is dying. Setting is the ancient, gnarled tree carved with the initials of a thousand first loves.
Setting is everything you love about home and also it’s everything you hate or fear. And for science fiction and fantasy writers, setting is what bubbles up at the outer edge of your imagination, the wonder of a world being created for the first time.
At its best, setting is another character in your story, maybe even the dastardly villain.
So the next time you write, take a minute to close your eyes. Picture where your story takes place, whether it’s in a souvenir shop on a busy boardwalk or a fiery dragon’s lair. Let yourself be there in that moment. See it. Hear it. Smell it. Taste it. Touch it. Live it. Embrace it. Then write it, and bring it to life, because if done well, setting is anything but boring.
Setting is transformative.
Setting is dynamic.
Setting is memory.
Setting is atmosphere.
Setting is solace.
Setting is danger.
Setting is love.