How to Craft a Good Setting

For me, the most interesting part of a creative body of work is the setting. Many people will talk about the characters, and how interesting they are, or the growth they exhibit. Others will point to the plot. But for me, the setting is the foundation; it sets the grounds for any ‘what if’s that the body of work is asking. Now, there are two general qualities of settings.

The first is the obvious: the familiar. By ‘familiar’, I mean that the setting corresponds to our notions of how it typically is. Familiarity is the reason that elves are tall and willowy and removed from the world, dwarves are short and stocky and miners who love alcohol, and halflings/hobbits are playful but possessed of personal hardiness. Familiarity is why protagonists are young and leave their village with mysterious outsiders, and why young people from small towns are protagonists at all. Familiarity is how we know sons kill fathers and hand-loss will show up in half of sci-fi and fantasy, and everything comes in threes. Familiarity is the stuff on which tropes are built.

In this, a good setting is a lot like a good joke. A good joke is all about establishing expectations, building up a story that we all know and understand, and then, in comes the second element: deviation. I agonized over that word for awhile: ‘deviation’. At first, I thought ‘surprise’. But surprise wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. Surprise indicates that you didn’t really see what was coming; didn’t have an inkling. And while there is room for genuine surprise in stories, for the most part, the spectator — the reader, the watcher, the listener — should see the punchline coming. They might not exactly know what that punchline is, but when it does come it should be followed with ‘of course!’ Whether that ‘of course!’ is followed with an ‘I knew it!’ or a ‘How did I not see that coming?’ is largely irrelevant, although it should fall somewhere on that spectrum. That is to say, the context (the setting) should lead up to the punchline.

In a sense, the conclusion — the end of the book, the punchline, the moral — should feel INEVITABLE, even if it wasn’t predictable. When you hear the ending, it should immediately ring true as the ending, or the setting wasn’t established properly. It certainly isn’t impossible that Frodo could simply take the ring at the end of The Lord of the Rings, but it wouldn’t fit in with the tropes of the book: that hobbits are strong of heart and will, that all ages must come to an age, including the age of The Ring and Sauron (much as the age of the Elves is coming to an end even as the books begin), that the thing that distinguished Gollum from Frodo was his close friendship with even just one remaining entity (whereas Smeagol had killed Deagol). Essentially, the plot should live up to the promises that the setting makes, establishing a strong unifying theme.

Now, I’m playing a little fast and loose with ‘setting’, because I’m starting to include parts of the story. But in this case, I don’t mean the plot. I mean the tropes, the imagery, and so on. Sure, discovering the tree elves of Lothlorien happens as a part of the plot, but it is itself not plot; it is a revelation of setting to the spectator. inverting that story in ways we don’t expect but can still clearly see. Reading about a character losing his hand, or being seen surrounded by ravens, or dying and coming back to life is plot, yes. How it happens is plot. But it is also setting, because it serves to establish what tropes the author finds important, and how he chooses to invert them.

If I can walk you through a few examples, I think this will be made clear, but as always, I must warn you of spoilers. In A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones, on TV), Ned Stark is established as the protagonist quite early on. However, he is killed off before the first book in the series ends. Yes, this is a plot point, but also acts to establish the setting that George R. R. Martin is writing in: in A Song of Ice and Fire, life is short, brutal, and ugly, and you can trust nobody. In a sense, this helps to establish the context of the story. And when the punchline finally comes, that context will be important.

So ultimately, a good setting uses tropes and setting devices to establish the tone of what is expected to happen in the plot.

As such, I’m going to try a new project for my new posts; I’ll be posting a setting I’ve designed, according to these principles, talking about the tropes it exhibits, and how those tropes are inverted, and what those inversions mean!

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