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Setting: for plot development

Plot is an element that can be inspired by and dependent on setting. Change the weather, or time, or location and there’s more scope for conflict and obstacles. Imagine piling on the misery in an already difficult situation when the lead becomes cold and wet and covered in sand, or loses his or her shoes, or has their clothes stolen. Maybe they’re lost in a remote location where the rule of law no longer applies. Maybe they’re lost in a dark forest and the woods are the kind of place from dark fairy tales. Influences can then be taken from those folk stories to inform the direction the plot takes and they can also inform what you write next.

Great example

In the 2010 movie, Buried, the entire film was set in a coffin. The writer needed to think about the possibilities and implications of the setting as to what could be achieved with the plot..

Let’s dig deeper
  • An American civilian working in Iraq wakes up and finds he is buried in a wooden coffin. The only two items he has with him are a lighter and a phone. Luckily then, we can see him inside the coffin from the flame of the lighter and he has a means of contacting the outside world.
  • He receives a call from a kidnapper demanding a ransom or he will be left to die.
  • He calls the government who tell him they don’t negotiate with terrorists but they will try and rescue him.
  • The kidnapper calls again and demands he film a ransom video or one of his colleagues will be executed. The trapped man tells the kidnapper the government won’t pay the ransom so the kidnapper lowers his price.
  • He makes the video but the kidnappers execute his colleague anyway and send him the video of the killing.
  • He hears distant explosions above ground. These damage the coffin and sand begins to fill it exasperating the situation by making it even more time limited.
Thinking outside of the box
  • He calls his government contact again and is assured all will be well. They rescued another man from a similar situation a few weeks before who is now safe at home with his family.
  • The trapped man receives a phone call from his employers, who inform him that he has been terminated from his job due to an alleged prohibited relationship with a colleague. Because of this, he and his family will not be entitled to any benefits or pension earned with the company.
  • His government contact calls saying the explosions he heard which have damaged the coffin were bomber strikers and his kidnappers may have been killed.
  • He makes a video of his last will and testament.
  • The kidnapper calls demanding his captive video record himself cutting off a finger, threatening the man’s family back home if he refuses. He complies.
  • All this activity on the phone is rapidly draining the battery.
  • The phone rings again. He begins to hear digging and someone opens the coffin. It suddenly becomes obvious that unfortunately he is hallucinating.
  • His government contact calls saying an insurgent has given details of where to find a man buried alive, and that they are driving out to rescue him.
  • He then receives a tearful call from his wife. He assures her that he is going to be okay.
  • Sand continues to fill the coffin to dangerous levels, giving the trapped man only moments left to live.
  • And you’ll need to watch if for yourself to find out the fantastic twist at the end.
A fate worse than death

You can see how the writer considered all the possibilities of what could happen within the limited location and how they could pile on the conflict. Making a problem time-limited is a great way of building tension and suspense. In this case, having the coffin become damaged and filling with sand, bringing to mind the wonderful image of an hourglass or sand timer, ramps up the pressure. The mood is one of imminent danger, claustrophobia and restriction. The prop of the phone provides comfort, albeit one that is temporary, and hope.

Consider this

Setting can be used to misdirect the reader, lull them into a false sense of security, in contrast as to what might lay ahead.

Imagine this scene:

A mother is making breakfast for her kids before they go to school. The mood is bright, sunny and hopeful.

This could be used as a contrast to what darkness might lay in store.

Think about the possibilities the setting affords for directions in which you can take the plot.

Maybe snow is pivotal to the story creating a wintery setting and mood.

But this also affects:

  • What the protagonist wears
  • How they move from one place to another
  • How warm the interiors are in contrast
  • How the character might hide from or be detected, by their footprints for example

Think about using sensory details to enhance the mood, tone and atmosphere.

You can create a sense of:

  • Tension: if theroom is cold, dark, smells rancid
  • Intimacy: if theroom is warm, lit with candles, perfumed

Don’t forget to use all the senses. We use sight and sound all the time in writing. Think about touch and taste and smell. Think about creating a sense of comfort like a favourite food from childhood, or a sense of unease. What surroundings make us uncomfortable?

Though this might just be you leading the character and the reader into a false sense of security…