by: Ian Blaylock
Besides the protagonist, antagonist, and conflict, setting and genre are also important building blocks of a story.
Setting is important because a writer has to decide where their story takes place. One way to establish a setting is through world-building. It’s how a writer sets up the world where the story takes place. Most of the time, world-building is discussed in regards to the genres of fantasy and science fiction, because a lot of these stories exist in fictional universes. Instead of setting stories like the The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings in England or Europe, J.R.R. Tolkien created fictional lands known as Middle-earth. Through extensive imagery and detailed maps, Tolkien is able to transport readers out of our world, and into his.
By adding in details about the world, the story becomes more believable because the setting becomes more real to the audience.
While Middle-earth may be a grand example, world-building doesn’t have to be that difficult. Even if you set a story in your hometown, your audience will need to learn details about the time and places where the characters are. It’s also okay to not know everywhere the characters will go before you start writing. As you write, things will change with the story. It’s okay to discover new settings as the story grows.
Depending on the type of story you are telling, you may have different kinds of settings. A lot of times a meeting place signals the start of a new adventure, like The Prancing Pony in The Lord of the Rings, or the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. Not just in epic stories are eateries so important. Look at Café Nervosa in Frasier, Central Perk in Friends, or the bar in Cheers.
Other times, a workplace serves an important part of the story, like Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch in The Office, Pawnee City Hall in Parks and Recreation, or the WJM TV station on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In sitcoms, these meeting places often are where lots of different stories begin.
The environment can also play an important part of the story. Countless holiday films deal with heavy snow causing problems, and in disaster movies the world itself seems to be at odds with humanity.
Remember the big snow storm in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?
Westerns are another good example of setting because so many of them use the frontier, or the American West as a setting. By combining location, time period, and familiar elements related to time and location, the world becomes more and more developed.
This leads us to genre. The genre of the story answers the question: “What type of story is it?” Genres are also a good indicator of what will happen in the story. If it is a romance, people will probably fall in love during the story. If it is a comedy, it should have humorous moments, while dramas are often more serious. Action movies will probably rely a lot on big set pieces and fight scenes. All of these elements can be mixed and matched together in different ways. You can have a comedic fantasy like The Princess Bride, or you can have more dramatic fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings. You can set a fantasy in space and call it Star Wars, or you can keep your space stories more focused on science and morality than myth and create Star Trek.
Genre conventions exist because a lot of stories share similar elements, but don’t let them stop you from trying something new in your writing. Blake Snyder, a screenwriter, thought about genre differently than we typically discuss it. In his book, Save the Cat!, he talks about genre not in terms of whether or not there are wizards, cowboys, or spaceships, but by the events that will happen throughout the arc of the story. If your story features a quest or road trip adventure, he calls it a “Golden Fleece” story, hearkening to Jason and the Argonauts. These stories also usually require characters to change internally, even if they are supposed to be looking for an external solution to a problem. If a story involves the relationship between two people working together, or two people falling in love, he calls it a “Buddy Love” story. This perspective is helpful to me because instead of focusing on stories with a similar setting, I look for stories with similar plot elements as guides if I get stuck while writing.
For example, if I am looking to write a fantasy-adventure story for a younger audience, there is a wide selection of material that I can use to work on world-building. However, just because two works are fantasy, they may not have what I need to tell my story. While The Hobbit and the Game of Thrones series may both be fantasy stories featuring kings, magic, and dragons, one is more of a political drama, while the other is a fairy story written for children. (HINT: Game of Thrones is not for children.) They’re both good places to mine for ideas, but if I was trying to write a story in the tone of The Hobbit, I probably wouldn’t want to use Game of Thrones as my guide.
Next week we will look at what “strong characters” are before we delve into story structure, and into the parts of a story.