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Settings Are 60% - Maximize Opportunity

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When considering your novel, whether taking place in a contemporary urban world
or on a distant magical planet in Andromeda, you must first sketch the best overall setting and sub-settings for your story. 

Wasn't it F. Scott Fitzgerald who said something like, "Setting is 60% of what makes your novel stand out"? A great setting maximizes opportunities for interesting characters, circumstances, and complications, and therefore makes your writing life so much easier. Imagination is truly your best friend when it comes to writing competitive fiction, and nothing provides a stronger foundation than a great setting. One of the best selling contemporary novels in recent memory, THE HUNGER GAMES, is driven by the circumstances of the setting, and the characters are a product of that unique environment as well as the plot.

But even if you're not writing SFF, the choice of setting is just as important, perhaps even more so. If you must place your upmarket story in a sleepy little town in Maine winter, then choose a setting within that town that maximizes opportunities for verve and conflict, for example, a bed and breakfast stocked to the ceiling with odd characters who combine to create comical, suspenseful, dangerous or difficult complications or subplot reversals that the bewildered and sympathetic protagonist must endure and resolve while he or she is perhaps engaged in a bigger plot line: restarting an old love affair, reuniting with a family member, starting a new business, etc. And don't forget that non-gratuitous sex goes a long way, especially for American readers.

And not only must you choose the overall best setting, but you must consider sub-settings that come into play for particular scenes. For example, if your overall choice of setting is India, you have it made. You might choose a sub-setting for a scene that includes a particular village wherein a large snake is sleeping in a tree and thus creating an absurd spectacle in the form of an ongoing conflict between Muslims and Hindus over the spiritual meaning of the snake's behavior.
Keep in mind, a great setting maximizes the potential for great characters, unique circumstances, and story complications of one kind or another.
Of if your character is in Scotland on a cold and dull day, place him or her in a scene during a "blackening of the bride" ceremony wherein the future bride is trashed and sloshed with everything from tar to Scotch whiskey. Will your character have any internal issues with this? Yes? Whatever creates inner or interpersonal conflict is a bonus too, don't forget.

If nothing else, create a setting or sub-settings that assist with the development of conflict between characters. If your character is an office worker in an otherwise stereotypical setting, place them in a special surprise meeting with certain types of ambitious, reckless or sociopathic personalities who combine to ignite an unavoidable moral dilemma. 

Set it up so that the tension crackles. Setting fixtures don't have to be inanimate!

By the Way, Does Your Setting Possess the Following Qualities?

Dynamic Evolution Over Time

One might quibble over the difference here between "set-up" and "setting"... Suffice to say, the author chooses a setting (a time and a place) that comports with a plot allowing for story enhancing social, political, cultural, or character-focused evolution in the fictional environment. Consider a novel filled with quarreling and toppling kingdoms (GAME OF THRONES), or a terrible secret uncovered that generates a killing machine to grind one man down (THE FIRM), or the coming downfall of a whole way of life for millions (THE UNVANQUISHED).

A New World of Wonder

Publishers like it when your novel takes readers into a world they're unfamiliar with. The freshness of new places, climes, cultures, people and things creates an irresistable draw for many. Witness the the popularity of EAT, PRAY, LOVE. Would it have been so engaging if the character had not traveled to exotic climes, but instead ate, pray, and loved in Podunk, Idaho? THE KITE RUNNER is another example. A whole new world, way of life, characters we could never have met otherwise.

The Potential for Energy

Keep in mind, a great setting maximizes the potential for great characters, unique circumstances, and story complications of one kind or another. Now, any idea what might best suit as an example for this category? How about THE POISONWOOD BIBLE? 

An overzealous Baptist minister drags his wife and four daughters deep into the heart of the Congo on a mission to save the "unenlightened souls" of Africa. During this time, Belgium is about to give the country its independence, and a popular election will be held to select the new ruler. A purge of Westerners is expected once independence is won. All of this coupled with the presence of superstition and conflicting customs creates a dangerous and weirdly dynamic setting for the American mission family. Consider, would anyone have read this novel if the author, Barbara Kingsolver, had set the story in Canada? Perhaps, but the color and energy would be lost, certainly polar opposite of what Kingsolver's setting, in that time and place, allowed.

Now, please go back over your settings and scenes and rewrite accordingly. You can't have too much energy or tension on the page. Be as aggressive with your work as possible. 


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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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