Isn’t it amazing how setting can change everything?
For me, it’s one of the most important things about a story.
As a reader, if I don’t buy the setting, I have trouble connecting with the story. Even if that setting technically works, if it doesn’t play a huge role in the proceedings, if it feels generic and small, the story tends to feel generic and small to me. The setting doesn’t have to be a sprawling, elaborate fantasy world to be important; even in a contemporary, I want that house or those streets, that cityscape or small suburban town, to feel alive and vivid and unique.
Many of my favorite stories are those in which the setting becomes a character in itself. It has moods, bad days and good days, a distinctive personality.
Without that setting, the story wouldn’t be what it is. It would become a completely new story. It would taste different going down. It could change the mood, the meaning, the language — everything.
Mom and I experienced this recently.
See, about a year ago, Mom lived in a different apartment. It was average in size and on the second floor, near one of her complex’s inner courtyards. Trees surrounded the balcony. When she watered her plants and sat with the dog to catch some fresh air, the space around her was full of leaves. In the spring, you could look out from the kitchen or living room and see a spread of flowering limbs.
It was cozy, intimate — safe.
Then, she moved.
Same complex, different apartment, lower rent. This one is a little smaller and faces the opposite direction. It’s on the third floor, and no trees reach that height. When she stands on the balcony, she sees a horizon — neighborhoods, businesses, our city water tower, the high school my brother and I attended, the highway.
It is a view of wide open spaces. It isn’t a cozy view, nor an intimate one. It isn’t safe, either. The height is greater; if you fell, you’d fall farther. The wind is more ferocious up here. From her vantage point, she could see car accidents, an argument in the parking lot, a fire, traffic on the highway. There are no trees here to block her view — or shelter her.
“Isn’t it funny?” she said to me, while we prepared for her surgery last month. “The new apartment, I mean.”
“What about it?” I said.
“Well, in the old apartment, I was so isolated. Cut off from seeing the outside world, really. It was very…closed. I could be on the balcony, and I wouldn’t have to see anyone, and they wouldn’t have to see me.”
She paused, opening the balcony door. Third-floor winds rushed in, bringing with them the smell of concrete, people, cars, motion, skies.
“And then I moved here. And now I have cancer.”
I saw what she was getting at.
“Now, I can see so much,” she said. “I see the sky, I see distance and space. It’s scary. Challenging, too. And I can see more people, I can see the world going on around me. It’s a good view of the city, huh? It helps to see it. I like to stand at the door and look out over it all. Totally different view over here.”
She was so right.
It does feel different over here in this new apartment. It doesn’t even feel like the same apartment complex, not until we go downstairs. How Mom lives, how she functions on a daily basis, even her identity, changed with her apartments. Now, as she undergoes chemo treatments and faces countless frightening unknowns, she’s able to see the sky. She’s able to remind herself that she’s not alone, and that there are others, and that there’s a dirty, messy, crazy, beautiful world constantly moving and doing around her. Instead of feeling cut off from the world, she feels like a part of it. It’s there, roiling, right outside her window.
Maybe it would have been fine, to live at that other apartment while going through all of this. But she doesn’t, not anymore. It’s funny how it didn’t work that way, and how she now lives in a place that overlooks the city and lets her see open sky. The setting is perfect for what’s happening in her life right now. It’s a challenge. It’s a reminder of hope and of life.
I can’t help feeling that if she were still in that first apartment, the setting would be all wrong, and her story could be different. This setting is just what she and her story need.
This situation with my mom made me think of setting in storytelling, and how important it is. Setting can set the entire mood of a story. When I sit down with a book, how it feels in my hands, how my brain processes it, the feeling it creates when I wrap myself up in it, is so incredibly dependent upon the effectiveness and construction of that story’s setting.
Every little detail counts.
What if Serenity had been full of cold, clean metal rooms with no personal touches, no twinkly lights, no warm fabrics and pillows? Would it have felt like less of a home? Would it have been harder to connect with it and its crew? Would Firefly even be the same show if Serenity was more like the no-nonsense, utilitarian starships of Star Trek? (Disclaimer: I love Star Trek. You know this. I’m just using it as a comparison. Picard for President.)
What if Hogwarts hadn’t had moving staircases and talking portraits and all the other little details that made it seem alive? Would the Harry Potter books still hold the same sense of wonder, awe, and danger?
What about Katniss Everdeen’s District 12? Narnia? The home of Frank and Alice Wheeler in Revolutionary Road? The Tallis estate in Atonement? Holden Caulfield’s New York? Frodo’s The Shire?
Would these stories be what we know and love them as today if even one detail of their settings were different?
But I don’t think so, personally. I think it would irrevocably change them.
What if Mom still lived in that other, sheltered apartment? Would her journey toward cancer survival unfold in the same direction without that bold, thriving horizon to inspire and strengthen her?
But maybe not.
As writers, we have to build our worlds carefully and thoughtfully. They have to seem real, cohesive, and necessary. They cannot feel arbitrary, as though we realized at the last second, “Hey, I need a setting for this” and just sort of slapped one together. Readers can sense when a setting doesn’t work, or when the writer’s heart wasn’t in it. And, for reader-me, I have a hard time connecting with those stories. I have a hard time believing in them.
What are some settings that struck you as particularly effective? What are some that just didn’t work for you, and why? What are some of your favorite settings, and why do you like them so much? For these settings you did love, what was the one component that stood out and defined the world for you? What made it unforgettable and believable?
Also, anyone who can name the source of this post’s title* gets, like, a fillion hugs. You’ve gotta be specific, though.
*I actually got the reference wrong the first time around. *facepalm* The quote is correct now, though.