Setting That Works

How Memorable Setting Can Advance Plot, Reveal Character, Echo Theme, and More

[This post is distilled from a November 2018 CWC-Marin workshop I led at Book Passage in Corte Madera.]

Flash Flood

In my first novel—Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher—my protagonist, Tomas Zamara, the mayor of Albuquerque, is going for a hike with his new woman, the radiant and volatile Tory Singer, who came came to New Mexico for a retreat in the desert because she wanted to start a new life.

It’s 2008, and Tomas has just begun his new role as New Mexico chair of the John McCain for president campaign. Five years earlier, the mayor’s wife Vera disappeared. A lawyer, she had represented some ruthless people connected to the Mexican drug cartel, and the speculation was that she was murdered because of that connection.

For most of that five years, Tomas held on to hope that she was still alive, and even though he was handsome and charismatic, he had remained celibate and had not even gone on a date with another woman. But as the novel starts, he meets Tory , and they have intense chemistry. But Tomas is reserved—they’ve kissed, but no sex yet.

He takes her on a hike to one of his favorite places—Bandelier National Monument in northern New Mexico, a dramatic series of narrow slot canyons in bright red and gold and orange. They’ve turned onto a side trail where it’s narrow enough they can almost touch both canyon walls at the same time. A little creek runs beside the trail.

It’s a gorgeous day. They’re gabbing, laughing, teasing. Suddenly, the blue sky disappears behind storm clouds, then comes thunder and lightning, then rain, then hail, then a flash flood.

First the water is around their ankles, then higher, and they run, and Tory trips and falls in the churning water, and she’s frightened and immobile and Tomas has to be a hero. He makes her climb up the steep canyon wall to higher ground. They make it to a ledge above the flooding canyon, but it’s raining hard and they’re freezing. The temperature has plummeted. They find their way into an old cave, where the native Pueblo people used to live, and they’re shivering, and Tomas, a boy scout, knows that one way to warm up if you have hypothermia is to take their wet clothes off and get their bodies close. They end up making love on the floor of the cave.

Now that flash flood and their escape and the sex in the cave is dramatic and exciting, and also reveals their character. Tory is frightened and he has to take charge in order to save them. Later, in the cave, she is the one who initiates the lovemaking and he is resistant at first, but as she says to him, your body is not resisting.

So we have a dramatic scene that could only happen in this setting, this slot canyon. The lovemaking advances their relationship to a new level. Already, the setting is doing a lot of work pushing the story forward.

Then, a chapter later, bones of Tomas’ disappeared wife are discovered in a wash— that’s where the book title, Bones in the Wash, comes from. The same flash flood that Tomas and Tory escaped from washed up a skeleton fifty miles away.

Now that slot canyon setting and the flash flood have also jumpstarted the plot. Now comes an investigation and, as the husband, Tomas is a prime suspect.

It’s unusual to be able do this much with your setting—to reveal characters, advance the relationship, and introduce a murder mystery to the story. I’ve tried to replicate this kind of chapter, and haven’t been able to. It’s an excellent example of a “setting that works.”

What is Setting?

The most memorable and effective setting is more than a pretty, or gritty description. It’s lean and strong because it’s working hard. Doing two or more jobs. Not just showing the reader where the story is taking place, but also advancing your plot, unifying various elements of your story, revealing character, echoing theme, setting mood, and more.   

The primary job of setting, of course, is still most important—to immerse readers in the scene. So they can visualize it, feel it, smell it. They are there with your characters.

There are going to be times when the setting does nothing more and that’s fine. But as often as possible, you want your setting to be doing more than one job. This is especially true because setting that is only description can stop your story in its tracks.

Eight “Jobs” Setting Can Do

1. Setting advances story.

(a) The setting is an obstacle the protagonist needs to overcome.

In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Alec Leamus and Liz Gold plan to escape East Berlin by climbing over the Berlin Wall. The wall is present throughout the book—it’s part of the zeitgeist of the Cold War—and, at the end of the book, they have to climb over it to escape.

In Grapes of Wrath, the Joads, a poor family of farmers leaves drought-stricken Dust Bowl Oklahoma for new opportunities in sunny California, only to find low wages, an oversupply of labor, and exploited workers.


(b) A change in setting creates danger—and creates new plot development.

In the Bones in the Wash example above, first the flash flood in the slot canyon threatens Tomas Zamara and Tory Singer, and he saves her life by lifting her to higher ground. Then that same flash flood washes up the bones of Tomas’ long-disappeared wife, creating a new plot development.


(c) The ticking clock builds suspense.

Whether a political campaign, a bomb in downtown L.A., or an upcoming wedding, the ticking clock create tension. An effective, though often overused, technique.

In Failsafe, U.S. planes armed with nuclear weapons have flown past the fail-safe point and are headed toward Moscow. As the bombers cross the Bering Sea, the president and his advisors huddle in a bomb shelter under the White House to try and stop a nuclear war.


2. Setting drives the story.

The setting itself is the story. It’s what the protagonist must face and overcome.

A Perfect Storm is a classic man-against-the-sea story, where the crew of the Andrea Gail is lost at sea during a storm in the North Atlantic. The men’s fight to survive in the treacherous conditions in the North Atlantic is the central story.

Other examples are Moby Dick, Jurassic Park, The Martian, and Life of Pi.


3. Setting defines character, changes character.

The characters are so defined by the setting, they couldn’t exist elsewhere.

In Lonesome Dove, two retired Texas Rangers and their fellow cowboys drive a cattle herd from Texas to Montana, facing bandits, Indians, disease, and the harshness of the landscape. The challenges of the Old West breed a certain kind of character—a loner, macho, self-reliant, independent.

In Bonfire of the Vanities, bond trader Sherman McCoy gets himself into trouble in racially charged 1980s New York City.  

Informing or revealing character is one of the simplest second jobs for setting to take on, because place is always filtered through character viewpoints and emotions. What characters see and hear tells us who they are. They might be walking down the same street and one notices people’s shoes, and another is looking up at the dark clouds and worrying that she doesn’t have an umbrella.

One strategy is to show how your character adapts when the setting changes or moves. Another is when the setting has not changed, but the character notices or responds to something new.

Setting often provides an opportunity to trigger an emotion in characters.

4. Setting establishes the rules of your universe.

For historical fiction or sci-fi/fantasy, the writer needs to describe the rules.

In The Martian, a dust storm on Mars forces the crew of astronauts to evacuate and they leave behind Mark Watney, thinking he had died. But he’s alive, and now stranded and alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive.

Danger: Sometimes too much of the reader’s attention is devoted to figuring out the rules. Not enough emotion or character development.


5. Setting unifies the story.

Some books have multiple storylines that are connected by a common backdrop.

In Hotel, Arthur Hailey weaves together stories from a variety of characters who are staying in a New Orleans hotel.

Another common way setting can unify a story is by establishing a place, like a bell tower in the town’s central square, that pops in a number of times during the book. Ideally, it will also play a role in advancing the plot or revealing character.

6. Setting conveys mood and tone.

Weather is often used to unify story by conveying mood and tone.  
All the characters experience the same weather.  

In The English Patient, the desert setting and the hot winds evoke mood, character, tension, theme, story.

“The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East.”


7. Setting echoes theme.

In All the King’s Men, one of Robert Penn Warren’s themes is how the past impacts the present. And yet, on the first page, he describes how when there are crashes on the Louisiana highways, they put a cross along the side of the road with a skull and crossbones to warn drivers, but then the kudzu vines cover up the crosses. We don’t learn from the past.


8. Setting as metaphor.

In The Great Gatsby, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock represents Gatsby’s hope and dreams for the future, a guiding light to lead him to his goal.

Gatsby also includes, as part of the setting, a billboard of eyes without a face — the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, an optometrist.

The eyes of God? Or, for Nick Carroway, the impartial observer he cannot be.


But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.

The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away.

Another example is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where the Mississippi River is a apt metaphor.

Setting Doing More Than One Job

In case I haven’t hammered you over the head with this enough, the best setting does more than immerse your reader in the scene. It can also advance plot, reveal character, unify disparate stories. Sometimes it can do several of those jobs at once.

Here’s a screenshot from my slide deck that includes all eight ways I’ve talked about above. (There are even more, but these are the main ones.)

You can see the slide show below and download the handout here—Setting That Works.


Carefree Writing, Deliberate Editing

While I was pulling this workshop together, I was also editing my novel-in-progress, a family drama about euthanasia, and, lo and behold, there were many places where I had written setting that was not working second or third jobs. Now I’m on the lookout for such passages, and I’m either cutting them or making them better.

It’s hard to be so deliberate about setting when writing a first draft. I know that sometimes I end up echoing theme in my setting without being aware of what I’m doing. My subconscious is doing the work during my more carefree writing of my first draft.

Editing is the place to examine setting more closely and figure out whether you need it or not. There are exceptions, of course, but the rule I’m trying to follow and I urge you to follow as well is that if it’s not doing any more than describing your backdrop, take it out. Or give it another job.

I’m going to close with an excerpt from the novel I’m working on now, an example of setting as metaphor, and setting revealing character.  It’s the opening of Chapter 53.

Frantic Bird

That afternoon, back home alone in a house too large, Lamar opened all the windows, and in flew an orange-throated hummingbird that immediately wanted to get back to the great outdoors. Flapping furiously, pecking at the bright, west-facing windows, backing away, attacking again.

Lamar swept at it with a broom, nudging it toward the open front door. Feeling as frantic as the bird.

When the bird found its way out, Lamar’s shirt was stained with sweat. A three-minute panic attack that felt like an hour.

That was a lot like how he felt before the bird flew into the house, still rattled after the intervention in the courtyard, after the intense tete-a-tete with his oh-so-disturbed sister. He was that trapped hummingbird and Lamar-with-the-broom all rolled into one, and then multiplied by itself.

Banging his beak against the window, trying to peck his way out of the mess he was in.

John Byrne Barry is author of two “page-turners with a conscience”—Wasted, a “green noir” mystery set in the Berkeley recycling world, and Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.