“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” –Sherlock Holmes in “The Copper Beeches” by Arthur Conan Doyle
The creator of Sherlock Holmes understood the value of setting and how it can contribute to a story’s success. Just as Holmes explains to Watson about how an isolated setting can contribute to crime, so does a writer need to remember how any setting can be utilized to enhance plot and characters if necessary.
So where are you locating your story? Why are you putting your plot and characters in that place? Have you made conscious decisions to do so, or does the setting seem unimportant to you?
When dealing with your story’s location, you should determine a couple of things from the outset:
1) is setting dominant or in the background?
2) what genre are you writing?
Dominant or Background?
Some stories feature settings so vivid and vital to the plot that the locale becomes a character itself. Such settings require a rich, vivid depiction. This is accomplished less through static long paragraphs of description and more through quick insertions of specific details into the action. The props the characters handle, the afternoon rain showers they walk through, the silent forest of dead trees snagging the heroine’s clothing as she tries to run … these can all generate the kind of imagery that sticks in your reader’s imagination.
However, some stories don’t require a prominent location. In this kind of fiction, the setting is simply diminished to a minor role. For example, the Battle of Waterloo was historically significant, but if it has little bearing on your story, then a few brief sentences are enough. Perhaps the viewpoint character hears the distant boom of canon fire and wonders when the battle will end, but she’s more concerned with convincing her spinster sister to let her attend the ball that night so she can dance with Major Honeycutt.
Each fiction genre carries certain arcane elements that are expected by readers. For example, a traditional mystery story is supposed to offer a murder or serious crime, a number of suspects with strong motivations but flimsy alibis, and a sleuth.
That being said, each genre also tends to affect how dominant a setting may be. The mystery story is less concerned with the external environment than it is with the location and placement of the body and the discovery of clues. Is it really going to matter if the murder occurs in Jamaica? Could it have happened just as easily in Dorset, England? If the answer’s yes, the setting will fade into the background.
Recently I reread AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie. This clever variation on the locked-room puzzle is set on a small island. The island itself doesn’t matter. All that’s important is that the characters be cut off from outside assistance. They could have been dropped in the middle of a desert, or on a small asteroid. The effect would be the same.
Some of you may be saying, But what about Sherlock Holmes? His rooms at 221B Baker Street? His slipper of tobacco? His chemistry set?
Holmes’s apartment is a character in the stories. It’s as beloved as Holmes and Watson. But the crimes occur elsewhere. Think of the settings in Robert B. Parker’s novels. Spenser solves crimes in Boston. The city is depicted, but not in a dominant way. It’s a backdrop, and the emphasis is placed on the victims and suspects. On the other hand, in Dick Francis’s mystery novel SMOKESCREEN, the South African setting is important to the plot. There’s a harrowing chapter where the protagonist is trapped in a car in the African bush and left to die.
Genres such as fantasy or science fiction often prominently feature settings. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is depicted in a way that has captured readers’ imaginations for generation after generation. Think also of Brian Jacques’s REDWALL series, with mouse monks defending the little abbey from villainous rats, weasels, and stoats. And of course there’s Frank Herbert’s DUNE, a novel featuring a planet so vivid it almost steals the story away from the characters. Could Paul Atreides have met the sandworms on just any old planet? No. Dune is a brilliantly designed setting–with every specific detail fitting plausibly and consistently into a cohesive whole, right down to environmental suits that recycle your perspiration and tears into drinking water.
When writing setting, remember to first determine how much prominence it will have and then always use the most precise, specific details you can to illustrate it. Employ the five physical senses as well, where appropriate, to help bring the place alive.