Except you can’t figure out the right setting.
Finding the right setting is hard. If the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug[note]That’s Mark Twain, baby![/note] then the difference between the right setting and the almost right setting is the difference between an amazing book and a blah one.
The right setting can carry a book. There’s an entire genre of books that depend on the worldbuilding to make them great[note]That’s what Orson Scott Card’s Mileu-type story is all about.[/note], where you can have stereotype characters, simplistic plots and the world will carry the day.
Even mainstream novels benefit from an amazing setting. John Grisham’s The Firm isn’t set in a law office, it’s set in a law office run by the mob. Mitch McDeere could have risked getting fired, now he’s risking getting killed.
So, how do you come up with the killer settings?
1. Steal ’em
Borrow, be inspired by, misappropriate, plagiarize, take. In fiction it’s all legal[note]Not actually legal, no. “No likeness to any person, living or dead” is there for a reason.[/note]. George Lucas didn’t invent Tatooine in a studio, he went out and picked a part of Morocco. Same with Indiana Jones and the legendary cliff city of Petra. Look around you, the world’s full of interesting places. Pick one. Change the name. Be inspired.
Travel magazines are great for this, as are popular science magazines and history journals. Go to the library and skim through a bunch, or google travel blogs. You’re bound to find loads of great settings. Then figure out how they can be applied to your story.
The setting doesn’t even have to be central. A malfunction on a bus will strand the travelers on the side of a road – a malfunction at sea will drown them. Search for way to turn your cool setting into conflict and you’re on your way to making it awesome!
2. Add unusual elements
Add an unusual element to a real-world setting. Hercules in New York[note]That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger first movie. They dubbed his voice to give him a Texas accent. It’s hilarious – for about 5 minutes, then it’s just embarrassing.[/note], the title says it all. Or do the Pixar thing and let the toys talk. Many after-the-apocalypse moves do this (but not Mad Max – kudos!).
The advantage of using this technique is that you don’t need to explain the basics of the setting to your audience, you can rely on them understanding the base setting and focus on the part that makes it unusual.
3. Do it like Indiana Jones
This is a variation on sugarcoating but going the other way: take a stock character and add an unusual setting to her (unusual for that type of character). Indiana Jones isn’t just an adventurer, he’s a university professor as well. So we can have Indy doing his running stunt before the giant meatball and then skip right to the classroom and the contrast spices everything up.
The nice thing about this is that it will instantly enhance both the character and the setting. The lecture scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark becomes interesting because it’s Indy lecturing. Make Marcus Broady give the lecture and it would be boring (and we wouldn’t believe the girl who wrote “love you” on her eyelids…).
Superman does it as well. Clark Kent has all these nifty superpowers but works as a lowly reporter. In most incarnations he isn’t even a star reporter (that part often goes to Louis Lane, giving her skills and recognition that Superdude lacks). But the setting, an average newsroom, benefits from the audience knowing that there’s a superhuman walking amongst all the desks.
4. Passion – Add Chicken Sex
I had the opportunity to interview a researcher about the sex life of chickens. Nothing could be more boring than chickens – they mill around, eat and get turned into chicken McNuggets. Except that this woman was really into the whole chicken sex thing. She had a passion.
And chicken sex is amazing. Truly. Hens have the ability to store gametes (that’s sperm for you laypersons) for up to two weeks, and get to choose which cock’s[note] Yes, a male chicken is a cock. Absolutely no pun intended.[/note] sperm to use (chickens are notoriously hedonistic and have sex with anything that moves; also, they practice rape and incest on a major scale).
Sitting there listening to the professor, I was struck by how interesting chicken sex was. Not because it, in itself is very interesting, but because of the passion, the eye for detail, that the professor showed. Just being there made chicken sex amazing, like discovering that the crud on the kitchen sink is made up of sapphires[note]Which may be true, at least if you’ve got an aluminum kitchen sink. Aluminum oxide = corundum = sapphire.[/note]. This is why some teachers are amazing while others are merely vessels for information: it is hard to stay unengaged listening to someone who’s truly passionate about something.
Use that in your story. Show us the setting through the eyes of someone who’s passionate about the setting. If you’re writing about bugs, show them through the eyes of an entomologist (that’s bug-biologist). If you’re writing about a law firm, show it through the eyes of a passionate lawyer (or a very jaded one, which is passion turned sour).
5. Unusual Melds – Frankenstein’s Monster
Frankenstein did something very right: taking two elements, death and the creation of life, and turning them into a (at the time) Science Fiction yarn. It the same reason zombies are cool (ok, were cool): death and life doesn’t mix.
Taking two cool things and melding them together to present a new and fresh setting. A mine below a shopping mall. An earthquake in a tunnel.
The flip side of this technique is adding a thing that doesn’t fit to something, sort of a setting equivalent of a non-sequitur: A horrible poet in a space ship. A flying submarine. Think of something that wouldn’t fit into your current setting, then figure out a way to make it fit in and you’ll have an amazing, fresh setting.
6. Change the scale
Isaac Asimov wrote a marvelous story about people shrunk to the size of individual cells and sent into the bloodstream of a famous scientist in order to remove a blood clot[note] Actually it was a novelization of a movie script but Asimov threw a fit over all the plot holes in the movie and got permission to write it his own way.[/note]. The setting changes the scales on which people operate, making it full of wonder and amazement.
Changing the scale has worked for hundreds of years, Gulliver becoming gigantic or minuscule comes to mind, and it continues to work. By changing the scale you allow people to look at something commonplace in a new way. It is also something that is very easy to envision, that someone becomes larger or smaller – it is a form of magic that even mainstream, don’t-push-that-fantasy-crap-at-me readers can get behind because we’ve all done in some way (growing from small children to large adults for example, or standing beside something truly large, like a redwood tree or a skyscraper). Also, the technique doesn’t require much knowledge on behalf of the reader, they already know how the normal-sized things work so you can concentrate on the story rather than presenting and justifying the setting.
7. Change Characters
Lord of the flies is about a bunch of survivalist doing their thing on a deserted island – except that the survivalists are children. The setting, a pretty common pacific island, would be rather trivial without the characters being children. But because they are, the setting becomes something new.
This is like changing the scale but instead of scale it changes the competences of the characters involved, making the setting more (or less for that matter, look at Forest Gump) challenging. Thus a simple obstacle like killing a pig (trap it, murder it) can become a major plot point. That wouldn’t be the case if the characters involved were a bunch of hunters, or even adults which an adult’s strength and knowledge.
Maurice Broadus did a similar thing in his :Knights of Bretton Court: trilogy, taking a common ghetto and placing king Arthur and his knights in it (as logical ghetto residents). Neither the setting, nor the tale is original, but because the characters are out of place in the setting and the setting is out of place with the characters in it, the setting becomes amazing and wonderful. The disjunction between what we know and expect, and what we read in the story makes it fresh and interesting.
8. Change Disposition
This technique relies on reader preconceptions. For example: in the western world we’re firmly rooted in the idea that knowledge is good. So change it into a version of our society where knowledge is bad, and you get George Orwell’s 1984. 1984 is pretty much the UK of the 1940’s in most ways – and yet it feels quite alien to us (it’s playing off of more than one preconception, as an exercise you might want to list the ones you can find).
You can do the same thing with something that is generally considered bad, like stealing. There’s an amazing SF story, which I’ve forgotten the title of (if you know which one I mean, please tell me), where the setting is a regular suburbia, except stealing is allowed (but only once per week per person), keeping your wife as a slave (OK, in a state of suspended animation to be revived whenever you feel like it) is a positive thing and you get to be the mayor not by voting but by being willing to accept the explosive discontent medal (if enough citizens become discontent it explodes) that goes with it. The setting itself doesn’t have to change – no aliens, monsters, totalitarian police officers or even evil people – and yet the story felt very fresh when I read it.
9. Add an Explorer
We humans love to learn. So when you insert a character into a setting that learns something we’re automatically drawn in.
It could be a space pilot landing on a strange world. It could be a teacher coming to a new school and having to deal with new students. It could be a student learning an advanced subject, or how to court the cheerleader/captain of the jock squad, or how to tie his shoe laces. There’s a whole genre of coming of age novels that exploit this fascination with learning.
So if you show us the setting through the eyes of a character who’s just learning it you can create any number of amazing insights from very simple, commonplace settings. It could be humorous, with the explorer misunderstanding simple items or functions, or deadly serious, like a person misunderstanding the social codes of a violent group.
If you want to see this done amazingly well in non-fiction, read Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, a middle class, American journalist’s learning journey among British violent soccer fans.
10. Exoticize the setting
There’s an amazing anthropological essay from 1956 called Body Ritual among the Nacirema (PDF). It was written by Horace Miner, then a post-doctorate fellow at the University of Chicago. It describes the strange medical practices of the Nacirema tribe.
Go read it. I’ll wait.
Seriously, do it. It’s short and fun.
Done? Here’s the spoiler: read the name backwards.
Miner started an entire genre of self-distancing anthropological research where scientists look at their own societies through the lens of exoticism. Basically you try to look at something commonplace and common sense as if it was the strangest thing in the world. In anthropology it gives you the ability to analyze things that you take for granted. In fiction it gives you the ability to make any setting fresh, just by describing it using non-typical details and words.
Ok, so this isn’t really about creating a setting as much as about how to describe it. And it relates to almost all of the above techniques, and can be combined with them. Still, it’s a very powerful technique. Try it. If nothing else, you’ll learn to look at any setting in a fresh, interesting, engaging way. And if you do that, you’ll be able to create the setting fresh for your readers.