Friday, May 17, 2013

Using new settings to refresh your story, by Yahong Chi

I was in the midst of revising my current middle-grade novel when one of my beta readers gave me a piece of feedback I found enlightening. In essence, she suggested I move my protagonist to a new location and have the next plot-related event happen there. Instead of returning to the same locale, my characters could interact in, and with, a whole new setting.

This struck home in so many ways. Why? Because a well-developed new setting introduces variety; allows different character traits to develop; provides potential plot fodder; and, finally, is just plain fun to write!

It would be impossibly monotonous if your contemporary middle-grade protagonist moved from home to school and back again for the entirety of the novel, wouldn't it? Not to mention it wouldn't be very realistic. Introducing a new setting can give your world more texture and make it feel more complete. This also has the bonus of making the scene a little harder to predict, especially if you've established certain routines in other settings (e.g. get nagged at by mom at home).

People act and think differently in different places, and this can be a powerful tool in developing your characters by showing, not telling. If your protagonist is shy at school, for example, a local soccer field may be the perfect place for her or him to let their confidence grow, which could then contribute to their overall character arc. Or contrast how your outgoing social butterfly is confident when helping tutor kids at a Kumon facility but feels small and inadequate when shopping at a big mall—and why. By having your characters interact with the setting, you can show facets of their personalities in different but potent ways.

The discovery of new places is always exciting, even if it's just a hidden grove of trees in an otherwise urban city; or it could be a new planet in a sci-fi novel that sparks the entire plot. Whatever the level, introducing a new setting always comes loaded with the potential of moving the plot forward. Clues or hints can be dropped, and clandestine meet-ups can be planned. Or, conversely, epic battles could take place there, or your worst nightmare could come true. Because of the shift in setting, possibilities open themselves up in all directions.

Finally, I don't know about you, but starting a scene in a new location is always a jolt of fun for me! I get to wind new bits of description into the narration, then figure out how these characters I've created are going to react. I get to explore the new paths offered by this setting and have character relationships develop in very interesting ways in the new locale. All in all, the new setting provides a feeling of freshness, an optimistic sort of "I-haven't-tried-this-yet-so-I-haven't-messed-up-on-it-yet!" feeling.

Of course, new settings should be as well-developed as possible, and too many locations can end up confusing the reader. As always, it's all about balance. So whenever you feel like you might be suffering from writer's block, or you can't decide how to move forward, try creating a new setting.

What do you think? Do you use your settings in this way?


  1. Love this -- especially the way setting can draw out a character's ... character.

  2. This is really great advice. Setting is so important and shouldn't be forgotten.

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

    1. For sure, Laura! It's always good to think about it when you don't seem to know where to go.

  3. Great post. Settings are so often overlooked. And yet, they are, in a sense, a part of the cast of characters!


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