Otherwise known as Setting. It’s one of the [many] things I struggle with.
The basics of an opening to a story needs to make clear the Who is Where and When, Why they’re there (maybe just a hint), and What they’re doing.
This post is about the Where and When of a story.
The place they are, the time they’re in, the technology, the environment, the buildings and politics and community expectations. Everything that surrounds us every day that we take for granted as being part of our world, as well as the things we struggle to find a way through, around, under.
Family obligations too much and the Main Character (MC) needs to get out from under? That’s something we can all identify with to a certain extent. The reader ‘we’ can easily identify that part of the setting. Family obligations, whether by blood or association, are strong. It’s worthy to break away without breaking bonds. Sometimes, it’s worth breaking bonds. As long as the reader understands why the MC is doing this, how much it matters to attempt to be more than the expectation of obligatory fulfilment, it can work as a basis for one part of the setting of the story.
Why? Because the reader identifies with it.
The location the MC is surrounded by. City or country? Buildings or mountains? Ocean or space? If the reader doesn’t know where the story is situated in place, they can’t visualise, and if they can’t visualise, it’s not real in the mind — which makes it easier to put down and leave.
The style and tone of language and rules. This is big, and can indicate whether Victorian, contemporary, futuristic. It can. The way language use sets a tone that creates setting. Look to high fantasy and how specific words are used to do this. Inn versus pub, troubadour versus singer/entertainer. You get the picture. The style and tone of specific words can set up the location and time of the story.
But — and it’s a big but (not that kind, mate) — if the setting is described as if it’s separate from the character’s views and opinions, it comes across as static and flat. A setting works best if identified through the MCs interaction with it. Either thoughts or actions, plans or disasters, the setting works best — and the MC is characterised — when it’s part of the whole, not a picture painted without the perspective of the character.
It’s one of the things I have to keep in mind with each paragraph. The where and when of why this who is doing this, how it creates obstacles or assists movement, how it shapes and defines the people of the world, and the place the story presents.
Setting is the Where and When of a story, and if the reader (me) can’t visualise it as if it’s real, it’s not good enough. I do a whole edit stage on setting alone, broken down by place, politics, people, community, money (that’s a bit important, and one I often forget!), social expectations/morals/laws, physical environment, using the expected tone and context and lexicon, etc.
It’s important. It’s why stories exist — to take us to a place and time of our choosing, a place of wonder and intrigue, of familiarity and difference, a place we can visualise cinematically in our mind. Setting is another foil for the character to interact with and show who they are, who they really, really are through their interactions and choices within the structure and confines of the setting.
Now, I’ll go and work on one of those things to make sure I don’t lose the place of the character within the story. Just enough to allow the reader mind to experience the world as real … easy to say, takes a lot of work to do.