The story setup
Most good stories are very heavily influenced by their settings. Consider this simple story setup. A young couple has just gotten married. At the reception, the bridesmaid reveals that the bride and the best man had a drunken fling the night before the wedding. As they head off on their honeymoon together, the bride and the groom must work through this crisis or their marriage will end before it has truly even begun.
This is a story that could happen virtually anywhere, and at almost any time in history. It could be a comedy, melodrama, or tragedy. All of the elements are there for any sort of story you can imagine. The overt crisis (though not the underlying conflict) is clear and the stakes are equally clear. Consider though, the effect that setting would have on this story.
It’s 2008. The wedding took place at a posh hotel in Chicago, The bride and groom now face a long plane ride to Hawaii, where they have rented a small villa right on the beach. While they are in Hawaii they are scheduled to attend a luau, an island tour, and snorkeling in a private lagoon.
It’s 1988. The couple was married at a Las Vegas chapel by an Elvis impersonator. The reception was held at the Circus Circus hotel buffet, which is the hotel they will be staying at, surrounded by their family and friends, for the next several days. They have tickets to see Rich Little and have booked a helicopter tour of the Las Vegas Strip.
It’s 1958 in rural Virginia. The couple was married in a large church wedding with the reception at the Elk’s Lodge. For their honeymoon, they are driving down to a small motel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. beyond the destination, they haven’t planned ahead, and the weather is turning bad. Their car is an aging Cadillac.
Different settings equal different stories
Obviously, these are rudimentary setting details, but I think you can get an idea that the three different settings lend themselves to dramatically different effects. A posh villa in Hawaii will influence the characters much differently than a garish casino or a small-town motel. The morals and general atmosphere of the 1950s, the 1980s, and the 2000s are very different. The economics of the three settings are also different. The feeling of being surrounded by family or being isolated during a crisis will influence the characters.
The setting can either have a weak or a strong influence on the plot and the themes of a story, depending on how the writer uses it. Here are a few ideas for choosing your settings:
Choose settings that matter to the characters.
Where they are and who they are with should matter to the characters in either a positive or a negative way.
Choose settings that can influence the action
A location with many options for things to do will give you a lot of options and opportunities for narrative description. A more isolated or claustrophobic location may drive the characters to interact more.
Choose settings that you know enough about to describe comfortably
Developing a sense of place can root the characters into the story. That makes it helpful to describe locations you know well, such as places you’ve lived in or been to. There are plenty of ways to research locations now without going to them though, from Google Maps, to Yelp, to Wikipedia, there are lots of ways to get to know a place.
Choose settings that will be of interest to the readers
While you don’t need to set every story in an exotic location, it is good to use settings that have a strong sense of place. Remember that you have the option of inventing a place that is entirely fictitious. I have a whole fictional town that I’ve fleshed out over the years and use as a setting for many of my stories.
Take the time to describe the settings
Don’t short-change the descriptions of your setting out of a desire to get to the plot. People like to know the details. You don’t have to dedicate page after page to the setting, but give enough detail that the people can see where the characters are and what is going on around them.