How Connected Settings Give Your Fiction Emotional Depth | Jane Friedman

How Connected Settings Give Your Fiction Emotional Depth | Jane Friedman

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Today’s guest post is by writing coach, workshop instructor, and author C. S. Lakin (@cslakin).

The characters we create in our fictional stories do not exist in a vacuum. We writers, aware of this, create places as stage sets or backdrops for the plot. But all too often these settings are ordinary and boring.

Sad but true, setting in fiction is mostly ignored. It’s as if writers feel they must sacrifice attention to setting to meet the needs of the plot—get the story moving!—but nothing could be further from the truth. The more real a place is to readers, the easier they can be transported there to experience the story.

Whether setting is a huge element in your story because of your premise or not, you can make it powerful and impacting by choosing each place carefully. and by creating what I call “connected settings.”

Connected settings are places with emotional ties to the protagonist or other characters. Connected settings evoke specific emotions that hold meaning and charge the scenes with a unique energy.

For example, it may be that the setting is symbolic of some past life event and serves as a reminder of what happened and the feelings associated with it. Imagine a character being asked to an important business lunch in the same restaurant where his girlfriend turned down his marriage proposal. Even though time has passed, maybe years, an echo of that hurt and rejection will affect him while he’s there and, in turn, will influence his behavior and mood.

Placing your characters in environments where emotions are triggered can also heighten inner and/or outer conflict. If you’re feeling tense in a school principal’s office, discussing your child’s misbehavior, your defenses might shoot up and cause you to take a combative stance—all because you yourself spent many hours in such a situation during your turbulent teen years.

So, how do you go about creating these powerful settings?

  1. think about the key moments in your novel when your character has the greatest insights, pain, confrontation, or despair. Consider the traumas or difficulties in your character’s past and imagine the places she would have experienced them.
  2. Keep in mind the subliminal power of mood. Sensory descriptions, lighting, weather, and universal symbolism all play a part in setting the emotional tone of a scene. By carefully selecting words and imagery that evoke specific moods, we layer more emotional impact via the setting.
  3. Consider the high moment of your scene and the plot point you are going to reveal. How should your character feel at the end of the scene? How do you want your reader to feel? What is the best setting to drive home that high moment?

Let’s see how these three points come into play in the powerful scene in the movie Minority Report in which the protagonist, John Anderton takes the female Pre-Cog, Agatha, to his former home, which his ex-wife, Lara, still lives in. This is perhaps the moment in the movie in which John faces the most pain, despair, and insight (point #1).

John and Lara broke up years ago because their son was kidnapped and presumed murdered. Now, they hardly speak to or see each other, but John needs a temporary refuge for Agatha in order to solve a crime. I have little doubt this whole scenario was invented just so the couple would be in the same room to face the loss of their child.

Lara and John talk in their son’s room, and for a brief moment it’s as if the fast-action plot comes to a screeching halt in a moment of incredible poignancy. This scene is the very heart of the movie. It’s a highly unexpected moment—for the viewer and the estranged couple. For Agatha stops them in their tracks by saying, “There is so much love in this house.” She then “sees” the future their dead son would have had, recounting, “He’s ten years old … he’s surrounded by animals. He wants to be a vet … he’s in high school. He likes to run. Like his father. …  he’s twenty-three and in love …” and on and on she goes, seeing this future that could have been—likely would have been. The mood and tone of this moment is intense, unexpected, shattering and magnificent, all at once (point #2).

Although what Lara and John hear breaks their hearts, it somehow breaks through their pain, so that by the end of the movie they get back together and Lara’s pregnant (but not until a lot of suspenseful minutes pass on the screen!). That scene, so powerful due to the characters’ emotional connection to setting, is paramount in John’s character arc. It is the scene that propels him to the place of needed healing. Without it, he would never get there. He would wallow in misery and drugs forever.

How does John feel at the end of this scene? Utterly broken and yet strangely relieved to drench himself in the pain he’s been burying for years. How does the viewer feel? Tremendously compassionate and empathetic over what John and Lara have gone through (point #3).

Could any other setting have had such a powerful effect on the characters or viewers? What could be more painful than sitting in your dead child’s bedroom, amid all those memories—the sweet memories before the tragedy? How do you think that scene would have emotionally impacted the characters and viewers if Agatha said those words to Lara and John in a crowded Starbucks? Don’t answer that.

Every scene in your story serves a purpose. It’s a stepping stone in your character’s journey, a puzzle piece in your plot’s mosaic. But crafting connected settings is a skill that requires careful consideration and a deep understanding of your characters and plot. Here’s an exercise to help you:

  • Pick one of your scenes (whether written or at the idea stage).
  • Identify your POV character’s goal for the scene—what must he do, learn, or achieve?
  • Jot down what you want him and the other characters involved to feel.
  • Next, imagine 5 different types of settings where this scene might take place, ones that fit the story and are logical locations for your character to visit. Make a list. Often the settings that come immediately to mind are the most obvious, but with a bit of digging, some more creative and interesting choices can be unearthed too.
  • Once you have a few options, look at each potential setting in turn and think of how you can describe the location to evoke a specific mood that will make your character’s emotional reactions more potent. Tension can be a factor too. Depending on what is about to happen in the scene, you might want your character to feel off-balance. Or maybe you wish to lull him into a false sense of security so he doesn’t see what’s coming. Either way, the details you pick to describe the setting will help steer his emotions.
  • Finally, think about what the character will learn, decide, or do as a result of what happens in the scene. The setting can act as an amplifier for this end result simply by surrounding the character with emotional triggers that will lead him toward that decision or action.

By carefully choosing settings that trigger emotions, intensify conflicts, and evoke specific moods, you infuse your story with vivid, unforgettable scenes that keep readers engaged from the first page to the last. Have your settings breathe life into your characters and amplify their emotions, so that your story will linger in the hearts of your readers. Embrace the power of connected settings and watch your fiction come alive.

C.S. Lakin

C. S. Lakin is an award-winning author of more than 30 books, fiction and nonfiction (which includes more than 10 books in her writer’s Toolbox series). Her online video courses at Writing for Life Workshops have helped more than 5,000 fiction writers improve their craft. To go deep into creating great settings and evoking emotions in your characters, and to learn essential technique, enroll in Lakin’s courses Crafting Powerful Settings and Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers. Her blog Live Write Thrive has more than 1 million words of instruction for writers, so hop on over and level-up your writing!

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