The Dramatic Potential of Setting

by Jacob M. Appel

Anyone who has ever opened a retail business soon recognizes that the difference between sales and starvation boils down to three fundamental factors: location, location and location.
Where we reside shapes every aspect of our existence, from how we earn our livelihoods to whom we marry. At the same time, when it comes to writing stories, setting almost invariably receives short shrift. Many aspiring writers treat setting as merely an element of background—an incidental necessity, maybe, but a tertiary craft concern when compared to plot or character development or dialogue. In doing so, they sacrifice one of the most effective tools in their literary arsenals.
Why early-career writers underestimate the power of setting is puzzling. Successful stories have been written without plots, and without dialogue, and even without characters—such as Ray Bradbury’s haunting classic, “There Will Come Soft Rains”—but all stories have to take place somewhere
In fact, most great works of literature announce their locations on the first page, and many within the first few sentences. Of the forty stories that appeared either in this year’s Best American Short Stories or the most recent O. Henry Prize anthology, more than half reveal the setting in the opening lines. These locations often prove highly specific: “a lucid-dreaming seminar at the Kalani resort on the Big Island of Hawaii” (Lawrence Osborne’s “Volcano”) or “the sludge containment tank at the East Winder Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant” (Angela Pneuman’s “Occupational Hazard”) or “a derelict building on the outskirts of Beijing that is threatened to be demolished by government-backed real estate developers” (Yiyun Li’s “Kindness”). 
Others simply tell us we are in “Jerusalem” or “San Francisco” or “New York City” and let us bring our own geographic imaginations and associations to the text. The minority of stories that hold back on setting nearly always do so out of necessity, such as Juliet Otsuka’s “Diem Perdidi,” whose protagonist suffers from dementia—and even here we learn in the first paragraph that the story takes place in a house “with a big olive tree where the road takes a turn.” I tell my own students that they should specify a story’s setting by the second sentence, unless they can present a compelling reason not to do so.  Few ever can.
Of course, all settings are not created equal. When I urge my students that the first decision they should make in drafting a story is to choose a setting, they often ask: Can I offer advice on which setting to choose? 
Unlike in other aspects of fiction, where writing what you don’t know and filling in the blanks through research or imagination often proves rewarding, experience has taught me that one should set stories in places that one understands well. Setting, after all, is far more difficult to “fake” than any other aspect of a story. Even the slightest false detail in this regard will jar readers. The most memorable moment in Kafka’s Amerika is not the inventive prose, but the fact that his Statue of Liberty mistakenly carries a sword and not a torch—one of several off-notes that reveal Kafka as a stranger to New York City.
Familiarity is not enough, of course. One also wants to choose a setting that unlocks the dramatic potential of one’s narrative.
Finding the power in one’s settings becomes easier once one identifies the purposes of a strong setting. As I decide upon where I want my story to take place, and how I plan to reveal this location to my readers, I have three specific goals in mind: to orient, to awe and to trap. 
Orienting the reader to a story’s world is essential because readers despise feeling disoriented. Until the reader knows where she stands, she devotes a good portion of her energy to figuring out her location, in the process overlooking lyrical language or brilliant characterization or even crucial plot details. Not clarifying setting is the literary equivalent of shouting, “Don’t look here!”—a surefire way to get most people to look.  The less attention you pay to setting, the more attention your negligence demands of the reader, even when you would prefer he were focused elsewhere. 
Once you’ve oriented your readers, you have an opportunity to impress them with your knowledge of the chosen setting, drawing upon specialized vocabulary of place to convey your authority. Most of the descriptive details of a story, from the species of plants in a garden to the styles of furniture in a parlor, arise from the underlying setting.
These are the same details that enable an author to display a command of language. Strong writing takes place shaded by lindens and inside Duncan Fyfe dining rooms, weak writing among generic trees and interchangeable chairs. By choosing a precise geography—replete with its distinctive astronomy and iconic architecture and unique species of rodents—you’ve acquired an opportunity to show off.
Dialogue also can benefit from the influence of setting. The distinctive diction and syntax of a region, such as whether your characters say “lightning bug” or “fire fly,” affords you an opportunity to awe your audience with your expertise.
Writers often forget that what is familiar to them may prove exotic to others. In fact, some aspiring writers ignore the enchantment of their own surroundings in a futile quest to mimic authors writing of unfamiliar locales. In modern times, the success of the collected annual Best New Stories from the South has induced many Yankee neophytes who crave to be anthologized to spin unconvincing yarns of alligator wrestling in the Everglades. Far better to set your story on your own street, even inside your own apartment.
Often the magic lies in the subtle details, not the strange environs. Thoreau, after all, spoke persuasively of having “traveled much in Concord,” and Walden is no more than a nondescript New England pond. But Thoreau steeped himself in the natural geography of Massachusetts, transforming his routine haunts into colorful worlds for nineteenth century audiences. Any writer can to do the same with her own backyard. 
Even the magic of geographically pitch-perfect dialogue and specialized vocabulary can gain only so much traction with readers. Eventually, the plot and pacing must keep the reader turning pages.
Vivid settings enable the skilled writer to control the pacing of a story with greater facility, drawing readers into the text. For example, lengthy description is one of the easiest ways to slow down a narrative for dramatic effect, whether to build suspense or to delay a surprise. Unfortunately, most lengthy prose descriptions prove tedious to read. Notable exceptions are descriptions of new locations; a shift in scene can serve as an effective stalling tactic. For writers as varied as George Eliot and James Michener, careful attention to setting enables more meticulous control of pacing than would otherwise be possible.           
A few moments spent thinking systematically about setting choice at the outset of any writing project pays off in the long run. (Failure to choose well can prove grim:  Imagine if Melville had discovered, after completing his first draft of Moby-Dick, that his novel belonged on a raft floating down the Mississippi River.)
Writers who craft settings effectively can earn ownership of those location with readers. To the literate world, the Salinas Valley of California is indelibly “Steinbeck Country.”  All of Mississippi, it sometimes feels, belongs to Faulkner, while at the mention of peacock farms, any college English major instantly thinks of Flannery O’Connor.
Yet these settings are not merely geographic contours upon which the authors constructed stories. Rather, these writers harnessed their extensive knowledge of particular settings to empower their prose. The good news is that you can follow in their illustrious footsteps:  All of us have been someplace as interesting as Willa Cather’s Nebraska or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex—probably places far more interesting. The challenge as a writer is defining those locations with precision in order to share the wonder with your readers.
Setting Checklist
Airplane pilots and surgeons have long used checklist to ensure that they do not forget crucial decisions until after the point-of-no-return. Since setting-related choices lock the writer onto a fixed path, going through a “setting checklist” at the outset can prove helpful when determining where to locate a narrative. Here are the seven setting decisions I make even before I start my story.
1.  Real or imaginary? All settings (at least in fictional work) are by definition imaginary. What you need to decide is whether the setting you create follows the general rules of the known world or to what degree it deviates from them. Genres like fantasy are conducive to imaginary worlds, but traditional fiction can also generate painstakingly-constructed yet non-existent places. Sinclair Lewis invented the fictional Midwestern state of Winnemac for his novels, including Babbit and Arrowsmith, even generating a capital city with a precise population of 361,000. Choosing an imaginary universe earns the author leeway, but at some expense: a reader cannot bring his own associations with Winnemac to the text.
2.  Past or present? The time when a story takes place inevitably shapes the place where in transpires. If your story demands a long, aimless drive across the Massachusetts countryside in an automobile, you want to make certain it does not occur during World War II, when fuel rationing strictly prohibited such sightseeing excursions. One should never assume that the reader will guess the era from subtle clues. Tell the reader directly:  World War II or the year the Romans sacked Carthage.
3.  Inside or outside? Never take for granted whether your story plays out under a warm roof or in the elements. This choice affects a whole slew of “downstream” details: What are your characters wearing? Are they in a hurry to avoid the rain? (How many extra-marital affairs are discovered by a partner returning for a misplaced umbrella?)  Outdoors, you can harness local flora or fauna to create an authoritative ambience.  Indoors, family heirlooms can provide windows into back-story.
4.  Urban, suburban or rural? All too often, novice writers conflate the degree of urbanization with the geographic region. Northeastern stories take place in urban environments, Southern tales in rural venues. Of course, many of our greatest Southern writers—Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, James Salter—wrote of the urban South, while the small town New England of Richard Russo is as far removed from Brooklyn as it is from Yoknapatawpha County. Closely related to the degree of urbanization is the extent to which people know their neighbors, often a crucial element in plot development.
5.  Long inhabited or recently occupied? Newcomers and old-timers see the world differently. The characters in John Cheever’s centuries-old town of St. Bodolph’s and in his newly developed Westchester suburbs endure their lives as prisoners either of their history or of their lack of history. Ranch houses built in 1970 feel different from bungalows built in 1930; though it’s not essential to cite a building’s date of construction (such technical details usually read like clutter) the writer should know the age of the buildings—and one’s world..
6.  Prosperous or in decline?  The events of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent occur a proverbial stone’s throw away from each other on the Long Island shore, but the nouveau riche of Nick Carraway’s world and the nouveau pauvre of Ethan Allen Hawley’s exist on different planets. Truman Capote’s New York is not Joseph Mitchell’s New York is not James Baldwin’s New York. 
7.   Safe or unsafe? When I visit a new city, I want to know whether, upon leaving my hotel, I need to worry about being attacked with a machete or arrested by the authorities.  Effective settings often convey danger long before the details of the threats are spelled out.  As soon as Orwell’s clocks strike thirteen, most readers grow uneasy. When we visit Winston Smith’s tenement in Nineteen Eighty-Four, we sense menace through the setting, long before the rules of his dystopian universe are laid bare.

This article originally appeared in Writer’s Digest magazine