Welcome to the fourth part of my series on storytelling, TV, and Film, part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop hosted by Raimey Gallant. The hop is a monthly event where authors share resources and lessons they’ve learned about writing. To browse other posts in the hop, click here:
Last time I wrote about plot, and before that characters, and what first episodes of TV shows can teach us about writing awesome first chapters. These are fun posts to write, and not just because I get to binge watch shows on Netflix!
In this post I’ll discuss setting and location.
Setting is the time and location where your story takes place. This can be fictional, historical, futuristic, present day, or any location with modifications, like steam punk.*
*A historical setting with steam-powered machinery instead of advanced technology.
A good setting should complement your plot and enhance your characters. It can also help reveal or develop important plot points or themes. Let’s look at some examples.
My victims (shows & films):
Warning: Spoiler Alert!
How can setting enhance our stories?
Merlin: Check facts for historically based settings.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin lived between 500-600AD. (There’s still no proof he lived at all.) The setting of the TV show doesn’t reflect this time period. Stone castles as elaborate as the one in the BBC show didn’t appear until after the Norman invasion in 1066.
If Arthur lived it was likely he had a Hill fort, a fortified base atop a hill with large ditches surrounding it, and any castle would have been wooden. The show either didn’t check facts or decided a stone castle would look better on television. (There’s no denying it does!)
It’s best to check facts when writing about historical time periods. I could overlook discrepancies in Merlin because magic was involved, which takes the setting away from the real world and into fantasy, but in historical fiction fact checking is important to make settings more authentic.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Bring your setting to life with vivid detail.
The first look at Hogwarts is magical. Boats without oars carry students across a lake towards an illuminated castle, a sharp contrast to Harry’s muggle life. If Harry already knew about magic, the Great Hall with its floating candles and enchanted ceiling wouldn’t have seemed as wonderful. The same scene from Draco’s point of view wouldn’t have been as impressive!
Bring your setting to life with details. Choose your point of view characters carefully, and use description to help readers visualise their world. In fantasy this is especially important, because the world will likely be different from ours. Help readers become lost in the worlds you create by building settings that engage them with your characters feelings.
How to Train Your Dragon: Make sure your setting contributes to the plot.
How to Train Your Dragon has three main settings: The island of Berk, the dragon’s nest and the cove where Hiccup and Toothless bond. These settings all play a part in the plot. Berk is raided because it’s near the dragon’s nest and shows how different Hiccup is from other Vikings. The dragon’s nest is where a major plot point is revealed and where the final battle takes place.
Setting should not be random. Only show detailed locations if they are essential to the plot, and beware of over describing scenery unless your characters are interacting with it.
The Lion King: Use setting for symbolism and to set the mood.
The scene from the Lion King where Simba and Nala travel from the bright Prideland into the grim Elephant Graveyard is full of symbolism. The new setting is darker. Hyenas emerge from an elephant skull and scare Simba, and the following chase scene has flames erupting from the ground, bones surrounding the characters, and a dead-end with seemingly no escape.
Use setting to set the tone of the scene. Is your character about to be attacked? Move them from a brightly lit office to a telephone booth in a dark street. Is it a happy birthday, about to be ruined? Start with a sunny outdoor scene, and move the party indoors when rain falls.
The Punisher: Use setting to reveal aspects of your characters.
Frank’s living space in the first episode of The Punisher tells us a lot about his character. In a previous scene he burned down his family home,* and now lives in a tiny apartment, sparsely furnished with few personal belongings. The setting shows he’s a man used to being on the move, who spends little time at home and has no one close to him.
Your character’s living space or workspace can reveal a lot about them, and you can use it to reveal important things about your characters: Whether they are neat or tidy, what kind of things they value, who their family is (through photographs) and what’s important to them.
*What is it with characters torching their family homes? This happens in Fullmetal Alchemist too…
Daredevil: Use all five senses to reveal setting, not just sight.
Daredevil follows the story of Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer with a secret vigilante identity. We’re shown how Matt sees the world: He uses touch to visualise objects and people. He listens to hear where people are positioned and what direction they’re walking in. He relies on his other senses to build up a picture of the locations he finds himself in.
Show more than just what the character sees. Have them wrinkle their nose in distaste at the smell of rotten fish at market, or make them touch a tree bark and run fingers over rough engravings. Give their ears reason to prick up at the sound of a potential threat in a dark alleyway. Bring the setting to life using all 5 senses.
Legends of Tomorrow: Show the effects of time on place.
If your characters are away from a place for too long it will usually change, especially if time travel is involved. Legends of Tomorrow is a prime example. In the episode Star City 2046, the team crash-land in a future version of their home. The city used to have its share of trouble, but in 2046 it’s ruined. Gangs run riot, and the new Green Arrow, John Diggle’s son, is struggling to fight them. It was great to see how much 30 years can change a place.
If your characters are away from home for a while aspects of the setting will change. Show this in your writing. If your character had a favourite place as a kid, when they return it could be falling down. This would be a great way to symbolise broken dreams.
Fullmetal Alchemist vs Gilmore Girls: Consider the size of your setting.
A large setting, like Fullmetal Alchemist’s sprawling world, would be overwhelming were it not well handled. The reason it works so well is because the main characters, brothers Ed and Al, don’t have a home (they burned it down) and their quest necessitates a lot of travel. The main locations, like Central city, are given more focus. The rest of the focus is on the characters.
A small setting like Stars Hollow town, the home of the Gilmore Girls, also works, because although the setting is small the characters bring it to life. They are strongly linked to the setting, and there are regularly used locations associated with people, like Luke’s diner.
If you have a lot of locations, use more description for the more important settings, like big cities essential to the plot or places your characters spend more time. If your characters pass through small villages you don’t need to describe every detail, but if your setting is small bring it to life through your characters and deeper description.
So what have we learned about setting?
If you’re writing about historical settings check your facts.
Use detail to bring your setting to life. The perspective of a character who’s an outsider is the best way to do this because it’ll seem more wonderful.
Only show detailed locations if they are essential to the plot.
Use setting to set the tone of the scene.
Use descriptions of your character’s living space to show who they are.
Use all five senses when describing setting.
Show the effects of time on setting.
In large settings and fantasy worlds make important locations stand out.
In smaller settings link the characters to the setting to create a community.
If you have a large world think about travel. I read a book once where characters were sailing back and forth across the English Channel in no time at all. As someone who knows how long it takes it was jarring! Try not to over describe setting, but beware of under describing too. My characters often say too much and ignore the world around them.
Thanks for reading!
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!
I think my next post will cover what we can learn from TV & Film about writing relationships, secondary characters and their roles, or potential pitfalls. If you can think of any other topics I should cover, let me know!
What’s your favourite setting from a TV show, book or film? Has a setting ever not made sense to you? Let me know in the comments!