In all the books ever written about storytelling I think the subject of setting probably appears fairly early in most texts. It’s such an essential building block it’s hard to imagine thinking about a story without already having a setting in mind.
When Rust Hills finally gets around to the subject of setting there are only a few chapters remaining in his book. The difference, I think, is that Hills isn’t trying to coach writers through the process of generating and developing a specific idea. Rather, he’s trying to explain how the various aspects of fiction, including setting, fit together and function in all stories. It’s a grasp of craft I think many writers remain oblivious to as they get each new story underway.
As with all other aspects of a successful story, the setting may be basic to the original conception or may be the result of conscious and deliberate choice in the course of composition.
This statement is so obvious as to seem almost meaningless, yet it forces the issue: making a choice about setting is making a choice. It may be an instinctive choice, it may be a deliberate choice, but it is not without implication. No matter how you arrive at the setting for a story the test is whether that setting and story become more than the sum of the parts.
In my own writing life I’ve imagined everything from an individual scene to an entire epic simply because of the impact a particular place had on me, and I always enjoy such moments of inspiration. But absent a story that truly demands that location I know I have nothing special. Because it is almost impossible to write authentically and in an integrated way about places one has encountered only briefly, the choice of setting should involve more than postcard interest or the possibility of exotic complications.
If you’re fortunate enough to conceive an entire story from a particular setting, or to have a specific setting accompany a new story idea, there’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to question that original conception. I know how exciting and affirming it can be to have a fully formed story drop into the mind, but I also know that such gifts often lose their luster upon implementation. What seems at first blush to be essential can turn out to be full of holes on closer inspection — and good craft always demands closer inspection.
If you have a story in mind but are undecided on the setting you obviously need to grapple with these same issues. Settings you’re personally familiar with may be inappropriate to the story, while settings that seem appropriate may be unknown to you or include unwanted baggage. There’s also the question of how much work you’ll have to do to ground your story if a setting is familiar (or not) to your readers. You may revel in describing your hometown or a little-known seaside village, but if you’re writing a short story you may not have enough time.
Which brings us to New York City, and why it’s probably the most widely-used setting in the history of storytelling. Not only has it been the heart of the American publishing industry from day one, but as Rust Hills notes there’s almost no story that can’t plausibly be set in that location:
There are, in fact, so many comings and goings of all sorts in New York that an author can make virtually any plot or characterization plausible.
It’s not a coincidence that many of the television series’ and movies and novels you’ve enjoyed (or not) have been set in New York City. Almost any permutation of character and plot you can imagine is plausible merely by virtue of the compact nature of that expansive metropolis. Any two characters can credibly bump into each other on the street or bear witness to almost any event in a New York story, while the same two characters and situations in Boise or Birmingham might seem preposterous.
But there is a price to be paid for this utility. If every possible story you can think of can be plausibly set in New York City, then it’s awfully hard to make the case that any particularly story necessarily demands that setting. Likewise, if New York as a setting demands no more evocation than the name, the city itself teeters on the precipice of cliche. The only way to mitigate these potential weaknesses is to do what you have to do in any case: demonstrate that the setting and story are essential to each other, and realize the setting to a sufficient degree that it becomes singularly identified with that particular work.
The lesson here is that there is no free lunch. Setting a story in Paris or a small town no one has ever heard of may take the reader there, but you still have to bring that location to life in a way that enhances your story. As to how that’s done, here’s Hills:
This is as likely to be achieved by description of place as it is by location of place. Description has been given a bad reputation by bad writers.
Description not only encompasses what you as the author have to say about a place, it includes what your characters say and the point of view used to convey all that information. Description includes the language you use, the elements of place and time that you detail, and even specific events of the story itself. (A reader’s sense of a place will change if a crime happens there, or a supernatural event occurs, or love blooms.)
Almost everything you want your setting to accomplish will be accomplished through description. If you want to use a well-known setting like New York City — which will be known to most readers indirectly, through other stories and non-fiction media — you might still be able to differentiate that location by using description that is unique and particularly adapted to the story you’re telling. Likewise, if you want to use an unknown (or even imagined) location, the description you employ may allow you to create a plausible or even visceral sense of place without a great deal of overt explanation.
In truth its only in extremely rare cases that the setting of any story is forced. If your story is about the Golden Gate Bridge or Machu Picchu then your setting is given. But if what your story is really about involves a suicidal character jumping off a bridge, or intrigue at a South American archaeological site, suddenly your choice of settings expands. Of all the stories set in New York, the number that actually require New York as a setting is extremely small. (Had the American publishing industry and news media taken a barnacled hold on Emporia, Kansas, instead of NYC, the world would be awash in stories set in that town.)
Quite often the initial setting you choose simply meets the demands of the type of setting you need. If your setting is less a particular place (Las Vegas) and more a mood (dingy gambling house at two in the morning) you may well profit from considering that distinction. Is your horror story necessarily about a small, spooky New England town, or might you convey the same sense of fear in a suburban West Coast shopping mall? Again, while setting seems to be about place, the description of a place is at least as important than its actual location, if not more so. (Not only can you set a horror story anywhere, quite often it’s the least horrifying settings that are capable of producing the greatest chills.)
The question of setting may seem straightforward, but like everything else the choices you make will affect every aspect of each story you tell. Grabbing a location that’s handy or particularly familiar to you is easy. Taking a moment to consider which setting is best for your story in every regard demands craft.
Next up: Style.
— Mark Barrett