|(Photo by Chris J. Fries -- 2012: Reflections)|
In the first half of this series, we defined the three key elements that I believe must be present to create a good story: Character, Plot, and Voice. Then we added in a few more details which elevates a story -- an effective beginning and emotionally compelling conflict.
For the second half of our quest, we will continue fleshing out the elements of character, plot, and voice. Today we cover an element that can have either a huge impact or virtually none, depending on the story. The key is to know how much a given story needs.
Try to imagine Frank Herbert's Dune set anywhere else than on the desert planet Arrakis. Or Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath taking place at some time other than the Great Depression. Think Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep would work as well if Phillip Marlow was a private investigator anywhere other than Los Angeles in the 1930's? How important are the creatures and landmarks of Middle-Earth to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings?
All these novels succeed in part because of another important element of a good story:
Setting is the "when" and "where" of a story. For some stories, setting is almost insignificant. Just enough information is needed to ground the plot. For others, it is a vital element, so much so that the setting 'becomes a character in itself', to use the old adage. At this level, the setting affects the plot and the other characters, and the plot leads to change and consequences for the setting.
Some of the need for setting is driven by genre -- science fiction and fantasy typically requires more time establishing the setting. The more alien the universe, the more groundwork a writer has to do to get the reader to understand that world. But even within those genres, some stories will still really only need the level of "modern day in a big city somewhere" setting to be entirely effective.
I think the secret is to know what's right for a given story, and for me that's driven by two things: I want to describe the parts of the setting that are critical for the plot, and the elements that a character's POV would see, when they impact that character. And the level of impact helps guide how much effort to put into it.
World-building can be fun, but I think many writers can overdo it. Perhaps they're familiar with that 'setting as character' line (and hasn't every high school English teacher rolled it out?), and so that's what they aspire to. In every story, regardless of how important the setting really is, they'll have sweeping depictions of the landscape and the weather; rigorous establishment of historic timelines; and detailed descriptions of every item of flora and fauna.
Personally, I think setting is important (or I wouldn't be making this post), but I also tend to lean towards the 'less is more' school of thought when it comes to description and setting. I'd just rather not risk having my readers bogged down in extraneous detail. I also don't want them gawking at the scenery when I'm trying to get them attached to my characters or working to advance the plot.
I think setting is like Thanksgiving turkey -- just the right amount really adds to the holiday, and in the hands of a skillful cook (like my lovely wife), it can be a mouth-watering treat that I can look forward to all year. But left to a shakier chef it can come out dry and bland, and too much of it always leaves me snoozing on the couch in a tryptophan-induced coma.
So how important is setting to you? Is it a vital element of your own Good Story Quest?