Establishing the setting is one of the toughest elements of storytelling for me. I have always struggled with it. Painting that picture, or turning what I see in my head into words, has taken me a lot of time, study, and practice.
So when I had the idea to write a story where two people get stuck in an elevator, my first thought was, “Finally, a setting I can get right!”
But as I drafted, I realized that confining my main characters to an elevator actually meant I had to work harder to get the story on the page. Sure, creating and describing the elevator was easy – but the very thing I was excited about not having to do (write the setting) actually made the story much harder to tell.
This is what I call a “challenging setting,” and my thoughts about what makes a setting hard to write have changed since I wrote ELEVATED. Used to be that I thought simply writing setting was hard, and now I believe that what type of setting is used is what actually makes the writing hard.
Tips for writing a challenging setting:
1. Decide how to handle scenes that take place outside of the setting.
You can make use of flashbacks, conversations between people who can paint the scene that took place earlier, dreams, or musings. I had to do a lot of this in ELEVATED. There are flashbacks where Elly remembers things. Elly and Travis talk about commonalities they both experienced. Elly muses on what has happened in the past.
2. Identify what’s difficult about the setting, and brainstorm strategies to overcome these challenges.
For ELEVATED, my main characters are stuck in an elevator. The challenge is that I can’t get them out of the elevator to advance the story. So I had to come up with alternate ways to communicate vital information to the reader.
If you’re creating a setting that is very harsh, either environmentally or politically, come up with ways for the main character to navigate the minefields he’ll encounter – either physical or otherwise. This type of brainstorming can often create personality traits that will make your character much richer too.
3. Don’t hold back! You can write a challenging setting!
Yes, it might be harder to convey the information you want to get across, or you might need to get creative to get your characters out of a pickle, but that’s how you grow as an author.
I’m always looking for ways to stretch myself creatively, and that’s why I ultimately decided to write ELEVATED in verse. I had never done
it, and I wanted to try it. So while the setting was also a challenge, it was the actual way of writing that opened my creative self up to new things, new ideas, and helped me develop new skills.
So don’t be afraid of choosing or creating a challenging setting. Use it to stretch yourself into a better author than you were before.
Elana Johnson’s work, including Possession, Surrender, Abandon, and Regret,
published by Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster), is available now everywhere books are sold. Her popular ebook, From the Query to the Call, is also available for free download, as well as a Possession short story, Resist. School teacher by day, Query Ninja by night, you can find her online at her personal blog or Twitter. She also co-founded the Query Tracker blog, and contributes to the League of Extraordinary Writers.