The setting of your story, or the “place,” is a critical element of your story. Too often I’ve thought about a story, and figured that, oh, it takes place in a suburb. But there are many mistakes in this assumption. First, it assumes the reader is familiar with suburbs. Other countries may not have the same social constructs that we have in the states. Not only that, but what kind of suburb? Suburbs can range in climate, wealth, features. A suburb with a nearby college will be different than one just outside of a big city, and it will be different again than one centered around a ski slope or beach town. There are all types of suburbs, and we do our story an injustice when we give the reader no concrete details about where the characters are located.
1. Place is a character, but not always a major one.
While place is important, certain places are going to be more significant than others in your story. And, I would say that the place is not always a major character, but it certainly can be. Think about the difference between Hogwarts, where the school was a major character, versus the school in Eleanor & Park. Can you even think of the school in E & P? It wasn’t that important. But the school bus, on the other hand, was. Though the characters likely spent more time in the school building than on the bus, the bus was where the characters came together and so, it was where the action happened. No matter how major each place is in your story, don’t forget that it’s important and you should give it the same attention you would a character.
2. Places can have arcs, too.
The place itself may change. Think of the garden in The Secret Garden, how it went from frozen and overrun with weeds to full bloom. Not all places may change in your story, but the sense of the place will change, as well as how your characters react to it. Is home a safe place? Maybe it is until a burglary happens. That one bench under that one tree in that one park where your characters first professed their love to each? Well, how does that place look once they’ve broken up? Places and our opinions of them change all the time.
3. The borders of your places should be clear.
And by that I mean that places in your story have borders. What are those borders? Is a high school student limited to where the school bus or mom or dad takes them? That’s going to change where your character can go. Is a woman running from the police and needs to hide in public? Is your character sick and stuck in bed, being cared for by family? Or is your character wildly rich with a fleet of private jets and drivers? Maybe the world feels limitless to the wealthy businesswoman, but where are her boundaries in the places she wants to go or has the most power?
4. Safety changes with borders.
Think about which places in your story are safe and which are not and at what point they shift. Home is safe for many people, but is standing in the middle of the street that house is on still safe? A dark alley may be unsafe, but what happens when the character movies into the light and the busyness of a crowded street? Maybe it’s more about the person who affects the place. A back room at work may feel safe until a certain person arrives. The place has now changed to an unsafe place because of who’s in it. Borders can close in or expand and every time something or someone reaches one of those borders, things are going to change for better or worse.
5. Places can be plot points, but they should feel natural.
Coincidences happen. You run into someone you haven’t seen for years at the grocery store and find out they just married your second cousin’s best friend. That’s a natural coincidence if both people live or work near the area and frequent the grocery store. But when your character goes out of town and runs into that same long-ago friend who is also out of town, it may be coincidental, but it feels a lot more contrived. Your story will be more believable if your places are believable, too.
6. All actions have consequences—even for places.
Whether good or bad, all actions have consequences, but that isn’t limited to people. There is a bad hurricane. What’s the consequence for the home of your main character? Maybe it’s that a tree fell on it. Or maybe it’s the only house left standing, thereby proving the builder to be of higher quality, or your character to have better luck. When it’s light out, your place will have different consequences to the sun’s action than when it’s dark. Don’t forget to include these details and think about how your characters and how your world affects your places with their actions.
7. The combination of time, place, and consequence can make or break your tension.
It’s often not a character being in a certain place that causes a story to happen. It’s the character being in a certain place at a certain time in a certain circumstance that creates the most interest. If your character goes to work, it’s not that interesting in most cases. But if he goes to his office at night when everyone’s gone and he goes there with a video camera, there’s a very different intention there. And what happens if he runs into some while he’s there? Now you’re starting to add interest to the simple action of your character going to work. Look at how each of these elements fit together and work them to create tension, suspense, and conflict.
What are the some of the best or worst places that you’ve experienced in books?