How the Setting Affects the Storyline

By Susan M Lewis, M.Ed.

      Much like music, the setting of a story sets a certain “tone” or “feeling” for your readers.  If you are watching a movie and you suddenly hear soft violins playing in the background, there is a chance the tone in that spot of the story is sad; while the more invigorating instrument of trumpets in the background sends energy to the storyline. So, too, with the setting of your story. When writers use specific settings in their story, whether it is for the entire storyline or intermittently, they are establishing connections and expectations for their readers. And much like a musician uses different instruments to create different musical sounds, a writer will use different elements to establish the many facets of setting.
 
Timeframe
The timeframe of a story is the easiest setting a writer can use to make immediate connections for readers. Setting your story in the past or future outlines what your reader can expect your characters to experience. For example, if your characters are interacting in the present day your readers will expect them to act and react differently then if your characters were living in the year 1600 or 2600.  When you narrow your timeframe to specific years, such as the years 1492 or 1776, you allow your reader to fill in what he/she knows about that period in time and establish certain expectations of your characters.
 
Location
The location of a story further refines the timeframe of a story. A story that takes place in the United States in the year 1600 will frame your story differently then if the location was in China. And a location where a character lives in England in 1776 will create quite a different perspective than a character who resides in the United States in 1776. Using both a timeframe and location this way allows your reader to lend his/her knowledge of historical facts to the story. A setting using history as a background is referred to as “historical fiction” and allows you, as a writer, to use the true elements of the past as a setting for your story.

But what if your timeframe is in the year 2600 and the location is on a different planet?  There is more groundwork for a writer to do to create a setting in this environment because there is no established knowledge for a reader to reference. However, using an unknown timeframe and location also allows more creativity for a writer who likes a challenge.

Surroundings
As a writer you need to create a space for your character to walk around in and a view to see. This space and view constitutes the surroundings for your character, and provides your reader with the images for your story.  Think of the location of your story as a dot on the map and the surrounds as the view out the window. Creating the surroundings for your character is very intimate and integral to your storyline. If your character lives in a quiet urban environment your reader can breath in different air then if your character lived in a noisy, bustling city. A hostile street with dilapidated buildings and broken windows will feel and sound different then a serene view of gently swaying grass from a tire swing hanging from a willow tree. By encasing your character in surroundings that reflect your story, you give your reader the opportunity to walk alongside of your character and gain an understanding of what your character’s world is all about. In The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, the reader feels the hopelessness and desolation when Katniss Everdeen walks through her home in District 12, the opulence and excess when she visits the Capitol, and the fear and horror when she is in the Arena.
 
Weather

Something that is in a constant flux is the weather, and as a writer you can use this to your advantage. A change in the sky from dark to light can signal hope, while brewing storm clouds can signal disaster. Wind is great for ushering in change or as a metaphor for an obstacle your character is facing. Think of The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. Dorothy was helpless against a strong wind that transported her to a strange and sometimes unfriendly world, which mirrored her feelings for her life in Kansas.  As a setting, weather is something your reader personally reacts to in his/her own world, which makes it easy for your reader to develop empathy for your characters who are experiencing the same.
 
Season
The cycle of seasons can reflect the passage of time or the habits of your characters. Whether it is planting time to harvest time, or spring time to autumn, the change of the seasons and how they are used in your story  helps your reader identify and acknowledge change. Or, if used as a constant, a season can blend into the surroundings and add validity to your story. If your character lived in the year 1760 in a log cabin in the woods and winter was approaching, your reader could understand why it was important for your main character to gather as much food as possible before the snow fell. In My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George shows how the seasons effect the main character, Sam, and how the change challenges and strengthens him. The backdrop of seasons in a setting is a way to enhance and add layers to your story.