“Setting is like a gentle friend: it’s right in front of you (or in your mind’s eye) and can be a lot less elusive than plot and character, so you might as well hang out with it.”
Brittani Sonnenberg is teaching an online class for the Writers’ League called “The Secret Trapdoor: Transforming Setting into Story” on March 23. This class will teach students how to choose settings, how to depict setting in a way that captures a reader’s imagination and transports them to another place, and how to make setting work overtime (i.e., how setting can help evoke other fictional elements like character and plot).
Can’t attend the live class? Those who register will have access to the recording for one week after the class. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: Setting is usually introduced as a foundation of writing (right up there with plot and characters), but writers don’t always spend as much time developing it as they do the other two. Why do you think that is?
Brittani Sonnenberg: I think writers often take setting for granted the way humans take setting for granted. By this I mean that in our day-to-day lives, we often don’t stop to notice just what trees and birds are in our neighborhood, how pleasing the soft neon glow of a sign is against the night sky, or what the streets in downtown smell like. But when we do, we feel more alive, and when we do so as writers, our fiction comes to life. And setting is like a gentle friend: it’s right in front of you (or in your mind’s eye), and can be a lot less elusive than plot and character, so you might as well hang out with it.
Scribe: How would you suggest writers work towards finding a balance between giving readers enough information about setting without unnecessarily dragging out the exposition? Is there a good rule of thumb that you rely on?
BS: When you feel your own interest flagging, it’s a good cue to move on to dialogue or action. Most movies don’t begin with a slow panning of the moors or the beach that lasts much longer than the credits, and most chapters don’t dwell on setting for much longer than a couple paragraphs at a time. Instead, narration dwells in setting, which is a much more integrated approach.
Scribe: Certain settings are often associated with certain genres — outer space with sci-fi, high schools with young adult fiction, and so on. Do you think there is space for writers to push back against these associations, or is it better to play it safe and go with what has been proven to work?
BS: Absolutely. You should write whatever setting feels integral to your story: usually a place that calls to you or haunts you. Slapping a genre setting on a story because you feel like you have to will make you feel trapped and constricted as a writer.
Scribe: In the best stories, characters and plot are intertwined and have the power to affect each other; do you think the same can be said of setting, in that it can change and be changed by characters and plot?
BS: Definitely! While a grandmother’s mountain house may not physically change much over the course of a novel, the events that take place may cause the house to shift from a place of comfort and reprieve for the protagonist to one of terror and regret. I recently interviewed a choreographer who likes staging performances in unconventional spaces, and she said that much of her inspiration comes from reacting to those settings. In fiction, plot and character should be deeply informed by setting, just as the events of the novel will affect how your character views their surroundings.
Click here to register for Brittani’s class.
Click here for our current class schedule.
About the Instructor
Brittani Sonnenberg is the managing editor of Tribeza Magazine and the author of the novel Home Leave. She was raised across three continents and has worked as a journalist in Germany, China, and throughout Southeast Asia. A graduate of Harvard, she received her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. Her fiction has been published in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 as well as Ploughshares, Short Fiction, and Asymptote. Her nonfiction has appeared in Time, Associated Press, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NPR Berlin.