By Angela Ackerman
Many authors, when in the throes of scene planning, are all about the action. They know who the players are, what they feel, and what needs to happen. With those three biggies squared away, it’s really just a matter of pounding out the words, right?
A critical piece of the puzzle needs our attention first: choosing where the action takes place. And this storytelling element, the setting, deserves our respect. It’s no slap-dash backdrop, no mere stage for the characters to stomp across while DOING VERY IMPORTANT THINGS.
Choosing The Right Setting Will Transform Your Scene
It’s true; the setting is powerful. It pulls everything together like a magnet, shaping the events and infusing your characters with a depth that cannot otherwise be achieved.
Don’t get me wrong, the action is important—very much so. Your characters have a job to do in each scene; they do the thing and the story moves forward, that’s how it works. But these active moments don’t happen in a vacuum. The characters involved come together in a very specific place. The danger, if our focus is held solely on plot development, is that we may be tempted to pick a location mainly because it’s close in proximity to our characters, or is a logical place for them to visit in their daily lives. Choosing a setting for these reasons can rob your scene of its potential.
To illustrate the importance of choosing the right where, I’ll share an example from The Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To City Spaces.
Say our main character Mary has returned to her childhood home on the advice of her therapist, with plans to confront her aging father about the physical abuse she suffered at his hand as a child. Her goal is to face him and make him know how much it hurt her so she can achieve closure and move past this emotional wound. The nature of this dialogue exchange is such that it will contain powerful emotional turmoil regardless of where it takes place, but that’s no excuse for us not to squeeze out even more raw tension by getting specific with the setting choice.
This scene could take place in myriad locations, such as in the car as Mary’s father picks her up at the airport, in his workshop as he sands down his latest hand-built canoe, or at the kitchen table over a meal.
Of all these places, which will hold the most emotional triggers for Mary? For example, if the family zealously followed spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child beliefs due to a skewed view of religious tenets, and this was the excuse for the beatings Mary endured, could this religious symbolism be shown through a cross displayed over the kitchen door? Or perhaps a cross-stitched verse could sit prominently above the family’s kitchen table—a place where Mary was punished if she spoke before finishing her food, even if it was to ask for water. This might make for a strong setting because the kitchen is drenched with negative memories.
But let’s explore our other options. The scene could also take place in her father’s workshop, where Mary was often dragged to be violently punished, weeping and begging for mercy. This location would certainly put Mary on edge, which would result in amplifying tension for the reader too. The events that took place in this room chain her to the abuse, yet her standing up to her father in this setting would be a strong declaration that she will move into a future that is untainted by past violence.
The third option, a discussion in a car, means Mary has a captive audience. Her father cannot get away from her accusations; he cannot escape responsibility for destroying her childhood. In the car, he must face what he’s done. However, unlike the other two settings, there’s no emotional connection to Mary, which is a missed opportunity to bring a deeper intensity to the confrontation through triggers. But choose the kitchen where she feels the yoke of religion bearing down on her—this is powerful, and will force her to fight feelings of unworthiness caused by her past emotional abuse. Likewise, taking her to the workshop will challenge her resolve as memories from the past bombard her. Both settings are stronger options than the two being conveniently trapped during a vehicle commute.
Think Past The First Setting Idea
When it comes to choosing the best setting, resist the urge to go with what seems easiest. Make a list and write down several possibilities. Look at each choice, and weigh the emotional symbolism of each location. What place can remind the character of their past, trigger memories, good or bad, and affect their emotional state?
Choosing a setting that has specific meaning to the characters and provides strong context for the events taking place allows the author to charge the scene with emotion, creating opportunities for the characters to reveal more of themselves (through showing, not telling) in an active and natural way.
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as four others including the newly minted Urban Setting and Rural Setting Thesaurus duo. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.