Setting: More than a Backdrop

The most memorable stories I’ve read were the types of stories that brought me into the world the author created. Regardless of genre or fiction or non-fiction, you are telling the story by letting the reader experience the world of your characters and action. The setting serves not only as the backdrop but also the powerful force that influences your characters. Cultural attitudes and atmosphere, for instance, influences people’s behavior, attitudes, perspectives of life, and social norms.

Think about it. Next time, visit a coffee shop or a spot with traffic that is in another town or neighborhood. It’s a spot where you don’t usually spend time. Go by yourself. When you enter, take a look around you. Note the ambiance and how it affects your mood. Do you feel relaxed? mellow? or energized? Observe the clothing of the servers. Are they in the typical server outfit of black and an apron? Or hipsters with jeans, tattoos while sporting the millennial man-buns and dip dye? Then, look at the people around you. What kind of people are there? Yuppies and middle-aged soccer moms in Lululemons catching up with their friends? College students? Is there any particular ethnic group or people group that has a dominant presence the space? Then, pay attention to their interactions. Don’t be too creepy. Hint: there’s something called peripheral vision.

For example, I was in Tatte Bakery & Cafe in Kendall Square, Cambridge. It’s near MIT, Microsoft Office, and a few other businesses. During the lunch hour, it’s mostly office workers getting a lunch and scurrying back. Other times, I see students, including the wannabe college hipster types. I say “wannabe college” before hipster because coming from Portland, I’m  surrounded by hipsters who go all out as if stuck in the 90s except that baggy Jenkos were swapped for skinny jeans. There’s also the grandma glasses as if that’s the signature hipster uniform. Here in Boston, I usually see mainstream, preppies, or the douchebag look. And, of course near Harvard and Kendall, I see the milder hipster outfits. Hence, I nickname them wannabe college hipsters.

It was 2 pm and I was craving good coffee and a pistachio pastry. There were two students next to me, the wannabe hipster dude in burgundy skinny jeans, flannel, glasses and somewhat scruffy hair, and had an Apple laptop in front of him. The girl dressed in a gray casual fitted tee,  jeans, sneakers and had stick straight brown hair and makeup. They were chit-chatting about life after college and their studies. It made me wonder about the environment that influences them. They are MIT students in Boston driven by the culture of ambition and making it up the ladder. Yet, the younger generation also wants to distinguish themselves and do something more than working the corporate ladder. She mentioned entrepreneurship, which is moving away from the traditional corporation work model, yet also talks about a scholarship for something. The guy talks about almost getting his thesis done and then his times of study and travel abroad. When I was in middle school, the reaction of travel abroad was, “Why the f*** would you do that?” Then, travel abroad became trendy. Joke’s on them. While I observed them, I concluded that there’s more to setting than a description. To make the setting an active force in storytelling, here’s some of my ideas:

Parallel Oppositions or Seeming Contractions: What are things that contradict each other at first? Example, the cafe is playing a relaxing, contemplative jazz music yet there’s the hustle and bustle of lunch hour. The hipster dude with scruffy hair yet he has an Apple laptop. Then, what are are invisible parallel oppositions? I’m assuming that there are two cultural forces are shaping these two people based on a 5-minute eavesdropping—going to prestigious MIT/ambitious East Coast yet seeking individuality and uniqueness. Essentially, the dualism of individuality vs. conformity. Oh, thanks a lot Dr. Hill from my undergrad American Literature courses. How much have you immersed me in cultural studies? If I was writing a coming-of-age novel, how would these two cultural/environmental forces (either paradoxical or contradictory) affect the lives of these two individuals?

Other Players: Then, I’d list other people in their lives. Maybe traditionalist parents who doubt her entrepreneurship goals and may prefer she works the corporate ladder at their friend’s corporation. Or the guy’s mother would have reluctantly agreed to have him live a hostel life in Germany or Cambodia. But, she may have thought it’d have been more beneficial for him to take courses abroad in London School of Business. The traditionalist and wealthy parents also set the scene and draw readers into this world.

Descriptions: Vivid details are an essential. There’s clothing, foods, day to day activities that have an influence on the people. The shiny modernist buildings that engulf everyone. Maybe that makes a young person feel insignificant against a huge structure. Being observant and soaking up the details of the place helps the writer. However, one of the biggest mistakes is overdoing it by bombarding the reader with so many irrelevant detail up front. I say pick one or two details and connect it to the character or situation. Reveal more as the story unfolds.

Language: The characters’ language reveals the setting. Everyone is familiar with the character’s dialect, mannerisms, and overall attitude. We all know that word choice plays a vital role in the setting. The story could be told in a sophisticated, cultured tone with some amounts of edginess and raw thoughts. This would shed insight into the lives of the elite in the modern day. Or maybe, the language could be everyday, relaxed, edgy, and consistently rough around the edges. Characterizing the narrator is the first step to have a consistent story, which is often overlooked. Who tells the story can also share insights to the reader about the setting and its influence on the characters and situation.

Niche: Sticking to one signature setting is a way to create your own niche or brand as an author. Marilynne Robinson is known for writing about small Midwestern towns and Christianity. I’m the opposite. I like to write about cities and what happens when different cultures and attitudes meet. I also like to write about travelers who are not living their life in the same place. I grew up in the global, international city. Having that familiarity helps me write. I find cities are an exciting setting to talk about clash of cultures. I’m still developing my niche and style. For anyone, it takes a journey. I say enjoy the ride rather than cringing over the destination.

With that said, I’ll leave you with a writing exercise. Feel free to use it at workshops or writer groups if it is helpful. I’d appreciate a mention or link to my page too.

Writing Exercise: I’ll post some pictures below of various places. Or if you are a workshop leader have several clippings and pictures of places and share them. To the writer: Pick one picture that appeals to you and write a description as if you are a narrator talking about the place.

Step Two: identify where descriptions could influence a character. Insert a character in there such as a table the the middle of a busy cafeteria. Revise the piece.

Step Three: What kind of language would the character use? How does dialect, voice, word choice affect setting?

Step Four (optional): Motifs. Are there motifs in the writing? Or could you insert one that’d build the story.




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