Setting and Atmosphere
By the time I turned fourteen, my family and I had lived in six different houses, in three different states. Like many kids whose families move frequently, I failed to develop a strong attachment to or sense of place. This never bothered me-until I began to write fiction.
My characters lived and breathed in the netherworld, an unidentifiable time and place, a sort of white space in the fictional world. While I wouldn’t call the lack of tangible setting a story killer, necessarily, it certainly detracted from my work. Setting and atmosphere evoke an emotional response. Consider how you emotionally different you feel on a dazzling May morning and a dismal day in November. You may feel terrific on both (my husband loves November days), but the specific emotions each atmosphere evokes-hopeful vs. reflective, perhaps?-likely differ.
Carefully written, setting and atmosphere have a similar effect on your characters, and also on plot.
Although they work together, setting and atmosphere are not interchangeable. Before we go further, let’s take a moment to define the terms:
Setting: specific place, time period, and weather and time of day in which the story takes place.
Atmosphere: refers to the surrounding mood, generally established through setting
Setting and atmosphere are central to your story: they both rely on and influence the plot. In a romance set in the protagonist’s hometown, for instance, her familiarity will affect her behavior. If your parents still live in your childhood home, consider the changes in you when you walk in the front door. When your protagonist drives through her hometown, she’ll recognize people and places. She may feel safe, protected, or childlike; if she grew up in a hostile place, she may feel threatened. If her love interest grew up in the same town, they’ll share a bond-they may have attended the same high school, know the same people; they’ll be accustomed to local traditions.
Now imagine: at the annual Fourth of July celebration in her hometown, Anna meets a handsome young man from Mumbai, on his first trip to the U.S. To Anna, the town is familiar, comfortable. For her, the child of a Vietnam veteran, the celebration evokes deep national pride-or shame; or maybe the picnic on the common is a time for gathering with family and friends, celebrating summer. For the young man, in town on a short job assignment, his surroundings are unfamiliar, alien. These differences may draw them together-she introduces him to family and friends, explains customs, pulls him into her circle. Or create conflict-he’s bored, finds the pie-eating contest silly, feels out of place with the people. Either way, the setting sets the story in motion.
What if, instead of a hometown celebration, Anna meets the same young man at night, in a bar in downtown L.A.? At a professional conference in Vegas? On a scotch tour in Edinburgh? On a plane, during a turbulent cross-country flight? In a hotel lobby during a category 4 hurricane?
Each setting would create a particular atmosphere, and from each a different story would emerge.
Consider the novel The Kite Runner or the memoir Under the Tuscan Sun. Could the same stories be set in the U.S.? If so, in what way or ways might the plots have to change? How does a thief who breaks into homes at night, when the occupants are asleep, differ from one who enters in broad daylight, when he knows the homeowners are gone? How might their motives differ?
Again, these choices make an enormous difference to the outcome of your story. Depending on your preference and goals, you may choose setting based on plot, or you might put characters in a particular setting and let the story play out. In a book, settings are likely to change. As you write, try to be aware of this and consider the behaviors and emotional responses settings evoke.
Rewrite an important scene from your novel or memoir or the opening pages of a story or essay.
Each exercise below asks you to change a particular aspect of setting. Note: drastic changes will produce the greatest emotional responses in your characters and have the most influence on plot. Don’t worry about the veracity of setting details. Focus on your characters and their behavior.
1) Change location-set your story in a dramatic or unfamiliar place. Bring an inside story outdoors. Put students who have never traveled outside the U.S. in Asia or Africa; an elderly man or woman in a frat house; a teenager in a nursing home; a young mother and her three young children in a crowded amusement park; a city-dweller on a mountain or in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere; instead of a peaceful beach, create a mudslide.
2) Change the historical time period-set your story 50 years before or after it currently takes place; 100 years; 250 years; 1000 years
3) Change the weather-put your characters in a tornado or hurricane; turn a light snowfall into a blizzard; a stormy night to a bright sunny morning; make calm weather threatening.
4) Change the time of day-again, create drama; move from afternoon to predawn; late night to midday; early morning to midnight; mid-morning to the witching hour, in late afternoon.
After you complete these exercises, assess the changes to your characters and story. How did these changes influence the ways your characters behaved? How does this influence your plot?
How do you determine when and where to set your novel, memoir or story?
Next: 3 Ways to Use Setting and Atmosphere to Create Narrative Tension
- Shannon Donnelly’s Random Fresh Ink: Character Arcs, Plot Lines, and the Synopsis, oh my