Lost in Space. Remember that TV show? No? Sigh. It aired in the 60s and featured a family in Jiffy-Pop space suits roaming the galaxy in an attempt to return to Earth. I mention it because, as fun as that show was, you don't want your characters lost in space. In fact, you want to pin them to a specific spot on the map, put them in a headlock and give them a noogie while you’ve got them there.
Settings aren’t just hang-outs for your characters. Let’s talk about ways to put your fictional places through their paces.
1. Relax your reader.
First and most obvious, readers will relax once they know where they are and what sort of a world to expect. Nail down the location with few accurate strokes and you’re one step closer to being able to lead your reader by the nose. (And that’s what you want, after all: dominion over readers!)
Unless the mystery of the setting is part of the story, it’s best to bang the stake in the ground right away. These words appear in the first paragraph of my latest novel, Middle of Somewhere: "Yosemite, wilderness, backpacking, adventure." Yeah, I’m subtle like that.
2. Use your setting for character arc.
Okay, so your readers know where they are, and when that changes, you let them know. Great. But there’s more your setting can do for you. It can reveal character. In her memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed staggers under an overstuffed backpack—a symbol of how she has no clue what she does and does not need in her life, and testimony to how little she comprehends about the journey she is undertaking.
My main character, Liz, is also embarking on a long backpacking trip. Liz, however, is an engineer. NASA packed the space shuttle with less precision than Liz applied to her gear choices. We only have to glance at Cheryl and Liz’s packs to know a lot about them.
Once Liz sets off, what’s in her backpack is all she’s got, not counting her boyfriend, Dante, who decides to tag along. Liz and Dante have to meet their challenges (i.e. the crap I sling at them) with a very limited inventory. The area is remote and without cell service. They can’t even phone a friend. And although the wilderness is vast, they have to stay on the trail, and they have to keep going. This setting has more constraints than a dance party in a phone booth.
And that’s a good thing. The more you restrict your setting, the more you force your characters to use their brains, or their brawn, or their connections, or whatever it is they have going for them. Or, conversely, the physical environment can expose character weaknesses, and goodness knows we all love the sight of human underbelly. Force your characters into tight spots, both psychological and physical. If you don’t, they will drown in a sea of possibilities. It’ll be harder for you to choose what they should do next, and harder for the reader to see the inevitability of your ultimate choice.
As I repeatedly put Liz and Dante through the ringer, they dug into their backpacks for solutions. They made a slingshot, and put a handful of tent stakes and a length of twine to good use. The tent stakes also become part of the plot, and are ripe with symbolism. And the tent itself was a major constraint. When Liz and Dante fought, they had no place to go; “sleeping on the couch” would have meant freezing to death on a slab of granite.
3. Tug the reader's heartstrings.
Sticky situations also develop sympathy. Nobody likes being cornered or trapped. Remember in Gone Girl when Amy ends up in that grungy cabin in the Ozarks and the lowlifes take her money? She thought she had everything under control but once she was isolated and outside of her usual world, she caves and runs to her ex-boyfriend’s mansion. And is imprisoned. I felt sorry for her! That conniving little monster stole my sympathy, and all because Flynn stuck her somewhere she couldn’t handle—despite her smarts—then put her under the thumb of someone nearly as messed up as she was.
Or what about The Martian? The entire plot revolved around getting one poor slob off a planet where he didn’t even have air he could breathe. Weir showed us a man uniquely vulnerable, extraordinarily ingenious, and determined to survive. No wonder I was glued to the page and, despite having read the book, I was on the edge of my seat during the movie, too. (Plus, you know, Matt Damon.)
Consider your setting as more than scenery. Investigate ways the physical environment can limit your characters’ options, contribute to the plot, and reveal to readers the truth about who your characters are. We are all shaped by our environments, limited by our circumstances and, at times, blocked by something as tangible as a snowstorm, a broken lock, a lost wallet, or a mountain. They don’t call it the real world for nothing.
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What book or movie makes you think of setting before anything else? Can you think of examples where the setting made the story for you? Care to share a snippet where YOU used setting well?
Sonja Yoerg grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and published a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox (Bloomsbury USA, 2001).
Her novels, House Broken (January 2015) and Middle of Somewhere (September 2015) are published by Penguin/NAL. Sonja lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
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