Susan smiled as she watched her five-year-old son, Ryan,playing on the swings; simply hearing his squeals of laughter each time the swing reached its peak made her happy. Her eyes carefully tracked each swing, as he shouted, “Mommy, look! I can go higher!” and swung himself inches from the edge of the cliff.
There is tension in that scene, but where does it come from? The action is simple enough—a mother and son playing at a park—so what is it that makes you fear that something is about to go horribly wrong?
In this scene especially, setting is almost a third character, someone looming on the sidelines waiting for their chance to act. Not every setting has this powerful an effect, but it is always an important player.
Adam knelt down in front of Judy, reaching into his pocket for the ring and trying to ignore the stench that rose from the surrounding landfill. He watched her expression carefully, but her hand covered her nose and mouth in an attempt to filter the air. He just had to hope that the crinkling of her eyes meant she was smiling.
Do you wonder what possible set of circumstances could possibly have prompted him to propose in a landfill? Nothing except the setting was out of place in that scene, but that alone raised so many questions.
Setting can create tension, confusion, and general atmosphere among other things. For example, a candlelit table by a lake creates romance, a run down house in the middle of the night creates fear, and the list goes on and on, but this doesn’t mean that every setting automatically creates a specific mood with no help from you, the writer. Not every place is culturally associated with a certain set of expectations and not all settings will create the tone or feel you want when read by someone else.
Look at it this way: What feelings to a classroom draw up? A lake? A bedroom? The desert? These types of settings can be made to signify anything by what actions are taking place there. An argument between lovers takes on an entirely different tone when it takes place in the desert rather than a crowded lecture hall. The characters themselves will react differently, and the environment will act in different ways toward them.
But physical location isn’t the only thing to consider in setting. Smells, sights, sounds, feels, and tastes (yes, tastes—some things smell so strongly you can taste them) can all affect the story. Even ambiguous settings can become emotionally charged if something is out of place. Imagine walking into a classroom and being hit by the stench of a decomposing body. Imagine being at a lake miles from civilization when you suddenly hear a roar, a scream, and a gunshot in the distance. Abruptly, those ambiguous settings have emotional energy and something for the characters to react to. Suddenly, the setting is more than just a place.
So, how do you choose the best setting for a specific scene? Obviously, you face certain limitations depending on your story. If your characters live in Hawaii, you better have a damn good reason for dropping them in the middle of a desert. So, within the realm of possibility for your story (not reality, possibility—if your story is about aliens taking an interest in humans, it’s very possible that your characters get plucked out of Hawaii and dropped into the desert), look at your options. Which settings carry associated emotions or preconceptions? Which ones are neutral and can be used to whatever purpose you have in mind? Make a list, if it helps, and set your possibilities before you.
Next, look at the emotional tone you want to produce. Is there a place you could use to help create that? If you’re going for tension in a scene with normal action, is there a place with built in danger (cliff, mountain, the ocean during a rip tide, an area of the forest known for bear attacks)? If you’re trying to make something special seem extraordinary, is there a completely mundane setting you could use (the kitchen, the grocery store, school, the DMV)? Is there a setting that, by contrast, can help bring up the desired feel?
Let’s go back to the lover’s quarrel. Say that your two main characters are calm, rational, and generally level-headed—when they have problems, they discuss them like civilized adults and find a compromise both can live with—but you need them to break up. Your story depends on it. It is imperative! What do you do?
Melanie walked into their bedroom, wringing her hands.
“Sean? We need to talk.”
Sean sighed, resigned. He’d known the conversation was coming and had been avoiding it. He turned off the television and sat up on their black bedspread.
Here, Sean is ready to talk to Melanie. They’ll probably argue, but, most likely, they’ll work through their differences and end up stronger than they started. This is partially because of the setting—a bedroom the two of them share. This bedroom is common ground and a looming reminder of their life together; however, this doesn’t work for you. It’s not what you need. Suddenly, you remember that Sean, because of a childhood incident, fears public ridicule more than anything else in life. So, what happens when you do this:
They were walking through the crowd, pushing toward the food court of the amusement park when Melanie sighed and stopped in the middle of the courtyard.
“Sean, we need to talk.”
Sean had been expecting this conversation for a while, but he couldn’t believe she was bringing it up here.
“Now?” he asked, already preparing his defense.
See the change? In this scene, Melanie decides to bring their issues out into the open and, though she doesn’t know it, has picked the one spot where Sean loses his ability to be the calm, rational, level-headed man she loves. Amusement parks are supposed to be places full of fun and thrills, but Sean is immediately on the defensive because he feels as though Melanie is attacking him; he feels she has no right to make their problems public. This conversation, though on the same topic as the previous example, probably won’t end well for either of them.
It’s an exceedingly simple thing to change, but the setting makes all the difference.