Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.
Setting can sometimes be the redheaded stepchild of narrative structure. Authors get too excited about what the characters are doing, thinking, saying, wearing…whatever…to get bogged down developing the setting. The characters are at high school. Bam. Setting. Right? Wrong. Setting is like a character in its own right and can be used to set the tone and the theme, to subtly give the reader information about your characters, and to strengthen the story’s climax.
Here, we look at a examples of how great setting can make (or break) your novel with special emphasis on JP Delaney’s The Girl Before. The Girl Before is a psychological thriller where the main action takes place in a single place: One Folgate Street. For each major character, Emma (the girl in the past) and Jane (the girl in the present), One Folgate Street is an emotional cornerstone. Without this shared place, One Folgate Street, The Girl Before simply wouldn’t be the same story.
Your Favorite Stories Have Character-Like Settings: The Proof
If you’re not convinced, rack your brain for stories you love and determine whether or not setting played an integral role. In the majority of novels, it does. Go ahead. Picture…
- Harry Potter away from Hogwarts and at your high school. Was I the only one who was so excited for Harry to leave the Dursleys in every novel and go to Hogwarts (or, second-best, the Burrow)? Rowling had several settings that were used and re-used that readers connected with in the same capacities that they connected with Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
- The DaVinci Code in Manhattan. Well, that wouldn’t work at all, would it? The Louvre is integral to the story’s beginning as are the other paintings and works of art that Robert Langdon has to track down to solve the mystery. The point is, taken out of its setting, The DaVinci Code ceases to function.
- Gone with the Wind set in modern-day Atlanta and Savannah versus the American South during the Civil War. You could refit the plot, but without the setting, it’s a totally different story and a totally different Scarlett O’Hara.
- The Fall of the House of Usher in a Colonial-style mansion and not Poe’s Gothic setting. The house was as integral to the story as Roderick or Madeline was.
The point is, strong settings are as memorable as the events in the story. They can make or break your story. Imagine any of the above stories in different settings or simply told where the setting wasn’t as carefully integrated into the story.
Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code may have both been successful stories by merits of their plots; however, it’s a certainty they wouldn’t have been as successful nor would Universal Studios have opened an entire theme park designed to enable tens of thousands of guests to pay $100 a visit to “experience the wizarding world of Harry Potter” nor would tourism in churches, museums, and the like in Europe have seen a boon on the heels of The DaVinci Code’s success.
Setting Sets the Tone
In addition to setting having the ability to alter the story’s overall impact, setting also plays an important role in setting the tone. In the above examples, we know that Usher’s Gothic house sets the scene for a haunted tale of supernatural mystery.
In The Girl Before, the primary setting is a stark, stoic, highly-technologized, intuitive home that—despite its open windows and floor plan—is surprisingly stifling. The home comes with multiple rules for what the tenant can bring, for what the tenant can do, etc. There are cameras within the home. Data are collected on tenants’ activities as the architect believes minimalist living will compel the tenant toward self-improvement. It’s a highly controlled environment.
Setting Defines Theme
For Jane and Emma, One Folgate Street is perfect; it’s a foil to their internal damage. When they move in, we learned that Emma, the ‘then’ girl, had been victimized in a robbery and sexual assault. Jane, the ‘now’ girl, recently had a baby who was born sleeping.
During their times of occupancy, Emma and Jane are attracted to the home’s simplicity and how the home has control while they feel limited in that area; the irony is that the longer both women live at One Folgate Street, the more complicated the home becomes. The walls seemingly closed in as their lives spiral out of control.
Setting Reveals Character Connections
Setting can also show how characters are tied together. If they are in the same place, then something must have compelled them there whether it is an emotional connection, an intellectual curiosity, or something else. In the case of Harry Potter, all of the kids were there because they had magical powers (even though some wizards and witches liked to believe they were not as equal as the setting verified they were).
In The Girl Before, both Jane and Emma are drawn to One Folgate Street, and this enables us to see similarities between their characters. The most important similarity is that they are drawn to the home because of its thematic relationship to control and the lack of control in their lives.
- In Emma’s case, she’s in a web of lies spinning out of control.
- In Jane’s, she has no control over having lost her daughter nor is she capable of controlling the emotions that come with such a loss (though, unlike Emma, Jane takes proactive steps to address the lack of control in her life outside of One Folgate Street, which is perhaps why she and Emma suffer different fates).
Speaking of differences, contrast is also revealed through the setting. While Emma’s vulnerability is exhibited through over-the-top sexual behaviors, a need for validation, and a compulsive tendency toward lying (thus making her an unreliable narrator (which adds to the story’s tension)), Jane is more straightforward and less dynamic, though, intellectual and curious. Much of this is revealed in their interactions with the setting; Emma is more compelled to break the rules; Jane is more compliant; though, she resists the home’s (once-desired) control over her life as One Folgate Street begins to turn against her.
The paradox of desire for control and lack of control is shown through the characters’ interactions with One Folgate Street.
Setting Strengthens the Story’s Climax
When readers are given a place they are familiar with and that has meaning for the characters, the climax of the story (provided it occurs in that place) is infinitely more poignant. Looking back to Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, St. Peter’s Square is integral to the story, and as the stakes rise, so do the crowds of onlookers and key players within the square. The fantastic climax (that seems to go on and on like a fireworks spectacle) takes place in St. Peter’s Square.
Similarly, it only makes sense that the climax of The Girl Before would transpire at One Folgate Street.
- As the story moves toward the climax, One Folgate Street becomes increasingly menacing, turning from Jane’s friend to her foe and ultimately trapping her in a situation in which she has no control, only the will to survive.
- What’s more, as One Folgate turns on Jane, she becomes increasingly paranoid and unhinged, letting her inner turmoil spill uncharacteristically outward; the home transform Jane into something raw, something primal; she parallels the home’s bareness when she has almost nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
- The setting maximizes tension as Jane literally fights for her life to avoid falling victim to the same fate as Emma.
Considerations for Using Setting in Your Story
While setting can be a mere backdrop for the story (obviously, not all successful stories are comprised of settings so essential to the story’s momentum) look for ways to make your character’s environment work for you. Keep in mind that setting is:
- Place (region, city, specific house, etc.)
- Social environment
By understanding your setting, you’re able to:
- Reveal things about your characters. “Why is my character here?” In the case of The Girl Before, Emma and Jane were attracted to the setting because it symbolized what they didn’t have: control. It was a perfectly controlled environment and was like catnip to the women at a time when, internally, they were in chaos.
- Maximize your climax’s impact. If Delaney had taken us outside of One Folgate Street for the ending, the parallel of control, of the setting turning against the protagonists, and of having nowhere to run, the big ending would have lacked the tension that kept the readers who loved the story on tenterhooks.
Setting isn’t the trees or the way you describe the ocean’s turquoise (those are descriptors); setting is a place.
The setting of a story colors the people and events and shapes what happens. Place connects characters to a collective and personal past, and so place is the emotional center of story.
--John Dufresene said in an interview
If you’ve been putting setting on the backburner of your story, bring it to the forefront and see where it takes you.
As a writer, I know it can be tough to ensure every aspect of narrative is working in full force like some of the best-selling works referenced in this blog. That’s why I love getting feedback for my writing and is why I enjoy my work as an editor. A manuscript critique is an affordable way for authors to gain insight on how their story translates and to fix it before they submit their manuscript to an agent or before they self-publish.