Thursday, June 28, 2018

How To Choose Your Story's Setting For Dramatic Effect

So, you've thought of a great idea for a novel. 

You've created a compelling protagonist with a conflicting desired goal and a longstanding misbelief. You've even created several other major supporting characters who take actions that will ultimately force your protagonist to undergo an amazing internal transformation through a series of events that they set in motion.

But wait! Where are your characters going to act out their roles? What state does your story unfold in? What country? What universe? Oh no. So many choices, so many possibilities. Too many to consider.

Well...maybe not.

If you're puzzled about how to create the perfect setting for your story, you're not alone. Many authors (myself included) have struggled with the settings where their stories will take place. 

Some authors, teachers and story coaches instruct authors to create an elaborate setting for your novel. They'll tell you to cram in as much detail about the buildings or the grass or the sky as you can. After all, you can never have too many sensory details in a written narrative.

There's one big problem with this advice. If you follow it, you will have one boring novel. Too many details in a narrative tend to choke the life out of an otherwise captivating tale.

The unpopular truth is that the setting of your story doesn't matter in and of itself.

Wait! What do you mean setting doesn't matter?

That's right. By itself, setting doesn't matter. Not one little bit. Your story could take place anywhere in the galaxy. It could take place right in your hometown. It doesn't matter.

Yet, at the same time...the right setting for your story is critical to its success.

Are you completely confused now?

Yeah, I thought you might be. This is just one of many things about writing that frustrates some authors to the point where they want to throw their hands up and quit. Don't be one of them.

Here's some helpful advice on how to choose the right setting for your novel

Start by reviewing the point you want your story to make. If you have not clearly identified your story's point already, do it now.

Let me say it again. Before you go any further, make sure you know your story's point. Yeah, it's that important.

Next, review your protagonist's most desired goal and longstanding misbelief. If you have not created either of these things, create them now.

Okay, so hopefully you know your story's point and your protagonist's story-specific conflict between her greatest goal and her longstanding misbelief. Now, think of how the setting can force your protagonist to undergo the internal change she needs to make by intensifying the conflict between these two opposing forces in her life

The right setting can really turn up the heat in your novel, and suck readers right into the story. They'll want to keep reading until the bitter end.

In order for your story to have this kind of enchanting power over readers, everything, including setting, in a story must be there for one reason, and one reason only: To facilitate your protagonist's internal transformation. If even one detail about your setting does not in some way, shape or form spur change in your heroine's heart and mind, it's got to go. No room for negotiation. Get rid of it. Kill the little darling.

Let me give you an example of how setting forces my protagonist, Sandra Porter, in my young adult novel From Bad Girl To Worse, to change internally.

On the first page of the novel, Sandra is at home. She smells the delicious aroma of bacon. Yet, instead of this fragrance making her happy, it makes her frustrated. Why? Because her Aunt Joanne is cooking bacon--and eggs-- for Sandra's catatonic mother, and only her mother. Sandra's aunt refuses to even speak to Sandra, much less cook breakfast for her. The dysfunction of the home spurs Sandra to seek out someone who will actually care about her.

Later in the story, Sandra goes to an abandoned chocolate factory to commit acts of mischief with a gang of newfound friends. But this is no ordinary factory. This is the place where Sandra's father lost his job when the factory permanently closed. And not long after Dad's sudden unemployment, he became an abusive drunk.

Sandra hated that old chocolate factory. It tore her family apart. So when the time came to smash out windows, she was more than happy to do it. She took out her pent-up rage over the family breakdown on the factory, a place that represented heartache and pain for her. 

As a result, she became a bad girl. And she got into trouble--tons of it.

Finally, when Sandra landed in jail at the end of the story, it was actually a glorious moment for her. Unfortunately for her, she suffered the penalties for her actions. But in the process, she overcame her destructive longstanding misbelief. Though she was incarcerated physically, she'd gained freedom from the self-defeating lie that she couldn't do anything right. She did do something right: She went to police and told them everything about a horrific crime she'd been involved in.

On the surface level, Sandra was jailed for doing the right thing--confessing to murder. But she was freed internally from a lifetime of self-condemnation.

In every one of these places in the novel, Sandra underwent some sort of inner change because the setting forced her to. The story's setting led Sandra to make her wonderful internal transformation--step by step. 

When you think about the setting for your story, think about how you want your protagonist to change internally, and how the details of that setting might force her to make the desired internal change. Step by step. Scene by scene.

Happy transforming,

L. R. Farren
Author of From Bad Girl To Worse 

P. S. - The best way to use setting is to have your protagonist begin the story in a place that causes her pain, then have her return to that same place at the end of the story. Even though the setting be exactly the same as it was in the beginning, she will see it with a new pair of eyes because of her glorious internal transformation. The place that once caused her pain will no longer represent internal anguish. To her, it will seem like a totally different--and much better--place to be.

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