The Power of Setting

A Guest Post by Kary English

If you're part of the writing world, it's hard to go more than a day without seeing a post or an article about the importance of relatable characters and a gripping plot. Posts about setting are much less common, and that's a shame because a well-drawn setting forms a vital link with the reader's imagination.

Here are four ways that setting influences the reader:

1) Setting transports the reader.

The goal of any piece of fiction is to transport the reader out of their everyday life and into the world of the story, and nothing does that more quickly or thoroughly than setting. Here, imagine these:

  • a cobbled street in chilly Edinburgh
  • a midnight snowfall in a forest of lodgepole pine
  • a dank underground cave lit by the green glow of phosphorescent moss, with the slow drip of falling water echoing off the walls

In each example, I've enticed you into a new world with very few words and no mention of character or plot. When you want to bring a reader into your story, do it with setting.

2) Setting aids suspension of disbelief.

A realistic setting makes fantastical elements seem more real by association. Part of the reason that vampires and werewolves worked so well in Twilight was that Stephanie Meyer put so much work into describing the town of Forks. From the wet, gloomy weather to the school lunchroom to Bella's battered truck, each realistic detail helped convince Meyer's readers that vampires were real, too.

If Twilight had been a white room story, with Edward and Bella walking down vague high school hallways and driving generic cars, readers wouldn't have found the books nearly so engaging.

3) Setting deepens character

Imagine a scene at the beach. Does the sunlight sparkle on the water, or is it a blinding glare? Is it a scene where warm sand is caressed by waves, or one where heat shimmer rises above an expanse of broken glass and cigarette butts. The difference goes deeper than mere description because fiction delivers setting through the voice of the POV character.

A character who's a painter might notice colors and textures, while a sailor notices currents,  tides and winds. When setting is described through the lens of a character, words do double duty. They describe setting and deepen character at the same time.

4) Setting evokes wonder.

If you don't believe me, watch the video at the end of this post.

It's said that genre fiction can be classified by the emotion it evokes. Thrillers target suspense, and romance deals with love. Speculative fiction is the literature of wonder. From the ice palace in Frozen to the snow-covered lamppost in Narnia, the authors chose their setting elements to appeal to the reader's sense of wonder.

In speculative fiction, wonder isn't limited to magic spells or advanced technologies. A skillful author can evoke just as much wonder from a towering mountain range or the sight of Saturn's rings arching overhead.

So when you're planning your settings, remember that setting is far more than when and where a story happens. A well-drawn setting draws the reader in and deepens his trance. It lends the feeling of reality to the story world and everything in it. A good setting leaves the reader with a deep and lasting sense of wonder.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/80836225]

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Kary English grew up in the snowy Midwest where she avoided siblings and frostbite by reading book after book in a warm corner behind a recliner chair. Today, Kary still spends most of her time with her head in the clouds and her nose in a book.

Kary is a Writers of the Future winner whose fiction has appeared in Grantville Gazette's Universe AnnexGalaxy's Edge and is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction.


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