THE ROLE OF ENERGETIC AND UNIQUE SETTINGS IN THE STORY
by Michael Neff
When considering your novel, whether taking place in a contemporary urban world or on a distant magical planet in Andromeda, you must first sketch the best overall setting and sub-settings for your story. Consider: the more unique and intriguing (or quirky) your setting, the more easily you're able to create energetic scenes, narrative, and overall story.
A great setting maximizes opportunities for interesting characters, circumstances, and complications, and therefore makes your writing life so much easier.
Imagination is truly your best friend when it comes to writing competitive fiction, and nothing provides a stronger foundation than a great setting. One of the best selling contemporary novels, THE HUNGER GAMES, is driven by the circumstances of the setting, and the characters are a product of that unique environment, the plot also.
But even if you're not writing SF/F, the choice of setting is just as important, perhaps even more so. If you must place your upmarket story in a sleepy little town in Maine winter, then choose a setting within that town that maximizes opportunities for verve and conflict, for example, a bed and breakfast stocked to the ceiling with odd characters who combine to create comical, suspenseful, dangerous or difficult complications or subplot reversals that the bewildered and sympathetic protagonist must endure and resolve while he or she is perhaps engaged in a bigger plot line: restarting an old love affair, reuniting with a family member, starting a new business, etc. And don't forget that non-gratuitous sex goes a long way, especially for American readers.
And not only must you choose the overall best setting, but you need to consider sub-settings that come into play (subsets of the primary setting) for particular scenes. For example, if your overall choice of setting is India, you have it made. You might choose a sub-setting for a scene that includes a particular village wherein a large snake is sleeping in a tree and thus creating an absurd spectacle in the form of an ongoing conflict between Muslims and Hindus over the spiritual meaning of the snake's behavior. Of if your character is in Scotland on a cold and dull day, place him or her in a scene during a "blackening of the bride" ceremony wherein the future bride is trashed and sloshed with everything from tar to Scotch whiskey. Will your character have any internal issues with this? Yes? Whatever creates inner or interpersonal conflict is a bonus too, don't forget.
If nothing else, create a setting or sub-settings that assist with the development of conflict between characters. If your character is an office worker in an otherwise stereotypical setting, place her or him in a special surprise meeting with certain types of ambitious, reckless or sociopathic personalities who combine to ignite an unavoidable moral dilemma for her or him. Set it up so that the tension crackles. Setting fixtures don't have to be inanimate!
Now, please go back over your settings and scenes and rewrite accordingly. You can't have too much energy or tension on the page. Be as aggressive with your work as possible.
And below is some more good advice on the novel setting from Nathan Bransford's blog:
There are three important elements to a good setting:
The best settings are not static, unchanging places that have no impact on the characters' lives. Instead in the best worlds there is a plot inherent to the setting itself: a place in turmoil (LORD OF THE RINGS), or a place that is resisting change but there are tensions roiling the calm (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD), or the sense of an era passing in favor of a new generation (THE SOUND AND THE FURY).
Basically: something is happening in the bigger world that affects the characters' lives. Great settings are dynamic.
Personality and Values:
There is more still to a great setting than the leaves on the trees and even the change that is happening within that world: a great setting has its own value system. Certain traits are ascendant, whether it's valor and honor (LORD OF THE RINGS), justice and order (HONDO), every man for himself (THE ROAD) or it could even be a place where normal values and perspectives have become skewed or inverted (CATCH-22).
There's a personality outlook that throws us off kilter and makes us imagine how we'd react if we were placed in that world. And it makes us wonder whether we have the makeup to thrive within it.
Most importantly, a great setting shows us something we've never seen before. Either it's a place that most readers might be unfamiliar with and have never traveled to (THE KITE RUNNER), or it shows us a place that we are all-too-familiar with, but with a new, fresh perspective that makes us look again (AND THEN WE CAME TO THE END).
When all of these elements combine and when characters become swept up in the broader changes sweeping the world of the novel it elevates the plot by giving it a deeper and larger canvass. Even if the characters aren't saving the world or confronting the changes head-on, the best plots intersect with their settings (and vice versa) to give us a sense of a character in a world, partially able to control their surroundings, but partially subject to the whims of forces outside their control. The setting is as much a living thing as the characters themselves.