by Kelley Lindberg
As humans, we often fall into ruts. We go to the same place for lunch more than we should admit. We read the same types of books and watch the same types of TV shows. We shop at the same stores and rotate through the same recipes for dinner every week.
As writers, we fall into ruts, too. If our protagonist is a teenager, we’re probably going to put them in the usual slate of teenage-appropriate settings, like the mall, the school, and a big party at someone’s house. If we’re writing a traditional fantasy, there’s probably going to be a castle, a long journey with at least one stop at a road-side inn filled with menacing-looking customers, and some dark woods. An urban tale will involve several scenes at a coffee shop and maybe a poetry slam. A contemporary mystery will no doubt include a back alley, a police station, a slick-looking office building, and an ordinary-looking suburban house thrown in for that “everyman” feel.
What’s more, once we’ve written one scene in one of those locations, we generally find our character returning to that same location over and over throughout the story.
But is that really the best choice?
Can something as simple as changing the locale breathe new life into a scene? It just might. And it might do more than just give your story a fresh background – by changing the setting, you can enrich the atmosphere, strengthen obstacles, deepen tensions, or even enhance the characters and their motivations.
For example, imagine if you moved your awkward first kiss scene in your contemporary YA novel from the front seat of a beat-up Camry (ordinary) to the catwalk over the high school stage during a performance of Spamalot (a little more unusual). How did they get there? The chances of them getting caught in a fairly spectacular way just went up significantly – does that heighten the tension?
Or let’s move your urban werewolf out of his typical nightclub hangout (been there, done that) and into an evening class called “The Secrets of Sushi” being taught at the local community college. His goal is still the same – nab the curvaceous beauty in the red dress – but the obstacles he has to overcome have just changed in a refreshing departure from the usual “denizen of the night” stalking sort of way. Maybe you needed an element of comedy (the werewolf must elude campus parking enforcers), irony (he really wants to like sushi, but raw fish just doesn’t satisfy his cravings like raw human meat does), or a more humanizing aspect (he just wants to take classes at the college like a normal person for once).
Whether you’re just planning your story or you’ve already completed a draft, making a list of potential settings you haven’t considered can be a very interesting exercise. It’s especially helpful if you find your character inhabiting what you consider “typical” locales or if your character returns to the same locale for multiple scenes.
If you’ve already started outlining or drafting your story, make a list of all the locations you have used so far. Are they primarily “typical” settings? Are there repeats that don’t have to be repeats? Some repeats are necessary – returning to the scene of a crime, for example – but if your hero and his partner are discussing aspects of the crime, do they always have to be in the car or at the police station? Can they be in the back row of the movie theater while the hero’s kid watches the latest Disney movie? Can that simple change reveal something about the crime that the hero hasn’t considered yet (say, the nearly-hidden projection booth gives him an idea of how the villain escaped)?
The setting shouldn’t just be novel for the sake of novelty, however. Like everything else in your story, it should also work towards revealing character and/or increasing tension (preferably both).
Now forget about the locations you’ve already used. Make a new list of all the possible places this character might go. Try to come up with at least 30 different places (bonus points for more!). Start with the commonplace (school, grocery store, work, park, mall), but then move on to more unusual places that would still be reasonable for this character to go to (indie movie theater, arts festival, announcer’s booth in a football stadium, hiking trail, top of a skyscraper, cave, historic battlefield, zip line, etc.).
Next, see if you can move any of your scenes to one of those non-ordinary places. How will the emotions of the scene change? What can the new setting do for your characters or for their obstacles? Does the new setting enrich the scene or detract from it? Evaluate each one carefully. Not sure? Draft the scene multiple times, using a different setting each time. One will begin to call to you.
Then take a deep breath, leave the ruts behind, and blaze a refreshingly new trail for your story.
Thanks, Kelley. I tend to get too caught up in my characters and sometimes I forget that the setting is just as important to a story. I'm making a list of unusual places right now.