Dynamic Settings: More than Just a Backdrop


In writing Vintage, I spent a lot of time thinking about settings. I had a blast creating the vintage clothing shop of my dreams. And as each woman’s story unfolds, there are interludes that take place in completely different locations and moments in time.

In my favorite novels, setting is more than a 2D backdrop. Instead, it’s completely intertwined and indispensable to the drama, comedy, or mystery taking place. Some of them are worlds I could curl up and settle into forever. Others… let’s just say they make me glad to live when and where I do, polar vortexes and all.

Of course, there are as many ways to approach setting as there are authors and stories to tell. So instead of giving advice, I’ll ask some questions aimed at helping us create settings that are more dynamic and integral to our stories.

What role does setting play in your story?

Is it a source of conflict, or does it bring about awakening and renewal? How does the setting affect the overall mood? Is it a small world or a big one? Do any of your characters feel trapped there? Does this role change from scene to scene or over the course of the story?

How does time pass or the setting change (if at all)?

In television sitcoms, everyone meets at the same bar, or sits on the same couch, over and over again and the set never changes a bit. In a novel, things are happening. BIG things. At the end of the story, even if everyone does end up on that couch, something is probably different. Maybe something or someone significant is missing from the assemblage. Or something has been added.

How does time pass throughout the story? Is it linear or do you go back and forth? Are there external events (war, drought, etc.) that impact the setting and, in turn, your characters? If so, how do you signal the changes for the reader?

How do your characters interact with the settings?

Places feel. Our childhood homes, our old high schools, our jobs. So what do the settings make your characters feel? When they go home, do they breathe a sigh of relief, or is it the moment they dread most in their day? Does the kitchen table have a bouquet of flowers on it, or is it covered by dirty dishes and unpaid bills?

Besides feelings, there are also cultures and norms that cling to everything: park benches, church pews, bar stools. How do your characters conform or rebel against those expectations? Are they part of the establishment, outsiders, or somewhere in between?

As you get to know your characters, you’ll discover the places that scare them. Places they go out of their way to avoid. Or places that are just awkward. What would happen if you took them there?

Image credits:onepicinspires

Author: Susan Gloss

Susan Gloss is the author of the novel VINTAGE (William Morrow/HarperCollins, March 2014). When she's not writing, toddler wrangling, or working as an attorney, she blogs at Glossing Over It and curates an online vintage store, Cleverly Curated.

4 Replies to “Dynamic Settings: More than Just a Backdrop”

  1. “Are there external events (war, drought, etc.) that impact the setting and, in turn, your characters? If so, how do you signal the changes for the reader?”

    Great advice – Vintage sounds amazing, best of luck with the debut!

  2. Setting is so important to me since my books (thus far) are set in Ireland. I love point three — how our characters interact with their environments says so much about them. That interaction is a great way to get description in without slowing the story down.

  3. The “sitcom” idea really caught me. You’re right — that’s exactly what we don’t want to have.

    It makes me think, by contrast, of the ending of Lord of the Rings, where Middle-Earth is saved, and then the Shire put back to rights, but the travelers are all changed, and Frodo is so changed that he can’t fit back into that world at all.

    _That’s_ a novel — not a sitcom. 🙂

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