Where Setting is King (or Queen)

Setting has a life of its own. It's true. Think of your favorite movies and books. The ones you love have rich, textured settings. They draw you into their fantasy worlds and make you feel like you are part of it. I am a huge movie buff and with the Academy Awards coming, I am reminded how important setting is to making a movie work or fail. Let's take our favorite movies. One of mine – Gone With the Wind – is also one of my favorite books - would not have been as successful if they had filmed it the same way as many of the previous movies of the 1930s. It needed the scope of color and the huge backdrop of the plantation home to make you believe it. Could you imagine what Scarlet and her sisters were feeling if you did not drive up that tree-lined lane to Twelve Oaks, or be swept away by the wide staircase as she saw Rhett Butler at the bottom? You wouldn't. When you see the devastation of the South through Scarlet's eyes when she's going to train station to look for Dr. Meade, you feel her anguish and pain. Now imagine the movie was filmed in black and white without the benefit of such attention to detail. Gone With the Wind would have been just another movie that year and might not have won all those awards. Of course this is just speculation, but I think you agree.

Let's look at more contemporary movies like The Matrix. Here an entire world is created that is inside another world. A world within computers where connections are made and manipulated. Where humans were fighting to regain control of their world from the machines. The machines look like insidious spiders or octopus as they fly through the air attacking the humans. When Neo is fighting with Mr. Smith in their final battle scene, we see the battle as it occurring. And when Neo goes to see the machines and is carried by the electrical circuits, we envision it. A more recent movie – Tron – attempts to do the same thing. Another world entirely is created in a video game, but the humans are sucked into this world by beings created by the humans. In order to control the world beyond theirs, they have to trick the humans to come into their world. We are mesmerized by the setting as it lights up, by the vehicles as they fly across the screen and decimate all around them. The grittiness of the human world is also evident when the hero goes to the abandoned video arcade in search of his father. Just like in The Matrix, we see the rough edges of the human world in comparison to the world created by the machines.

The set director must take what is written and create a visual world. If the set director for "Lord of the Rings" or "Harry Potter" had not succeeded, we would never have been able to envision the world of hobbits or the world of Hogwarts. Here, the connection between the movie and the book are key. In order for the reader to appreciate the movie, there has to be the same attention to detail. Purists will always argue it wasn't what they saw when they read the book, yet most of us are fully capable of suspending disbelief long enough to realize how much went into creating these worlds. Finding the appropriate locations to film, or building the sets exactly as the mind's eye has seen it.

So, let's get back to our books. Setting as an integral part of the story. In real estate location is key. In books, the same is true. If you write historical novels, you know how important it is to be true to the time period. To have your characters walk and talk as they did all those years ago. But what good does that do you if your character does not sit on the proper sofa. If you have them sit on a Chippendale chair but Chippendale hadn't lived yet, there's a problem. If you wish to have your heroine sip from a Wedgewood teacup you better do your homework.

In order for a writer to be successful in building this imaginary world, he/she must be an architect, an art connoisseur, a fashion designer, a hair dresser, a set director, and even a voice coach. So many of these talents must come into play to create the perfect setting. How do you describe the room where your characters are sitting and enjoying tea? How do you describe the estate as your character sees it for the first time? You must utilize all of your senses and pretend you are the main character seeing it. Will it make your heart race? Your hands sweat? Your eyes tear? Will you freeze in terror? Will you shrink back in fear? As the author you must analyze all these feelings and sensations and be able to put them to paper so the reader can feel it at the same time.

Using one of my own books – The Perfect Curse – we can get a glimpse into Baron Michael Lanier's world the night he first meets our heroine, Cara –

Michael swiped water from his brow as he directed his steed toward the road. The water sluiced over his shoulders as another bolt lit up the liquid darkness. The twisted trees stretched their crooked arms into the night creating a macabre display of characters to keep him company. The sudden thunder set Sagramour on edge and the horse shied a few steps backwards and snorted two mighty blasts from its flared nostrils. Michael patted its sleek neck in reassurance. "Easy, boy, it could be a long night."

As Sagramour plodded over the uneven mud pit which once was the road, the sound of screeching brakes and horses' whinnies interrupted the pelting rain.

    "Blazes." Michael stood in the stirrups to get a better view of the darkened road. Just beyond a felled tree, the splintered shards jutting into the air like broken bones, two matched bays bucked and a tipped-over brougham, one wheel gone, another spinning madly, lay in a ditch.


We can sense Michael's world through his own eyes. We sense the dreariness of the night and the gloom surrounding him as he sits on his horse. Are we drawn in? Do we want to know what Michael sees inside that upturned carriage? As the author, I certainly hope so. This is what we strive for – drawing in our readers until they beg for more. This is not possible if setting were not important to the story. Many say setting is another character. Very true. But keep in mind, not only is it like another character, it's more like the air around the main characters. If you do not create the proper setting, your characters are flat and without a richness to make them believable.


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