One of my lecturers, Dr Ross Watkins of the University of the Sunshine Coast, gave me the finest piece of writing advice for settings. He told me to consider my setting as another character, and provide it with a ‘dialogue’ of its own. Thanks to using this suggestion, I can build a much better and stronger relationship between my characters and setting.
If you are using your setting just as a place for your characters to interact and for the action to take place, you are underutilizing your settings. Could this dialogue take place just anywhere? Could the action take place somewhere else? A great setting acts in conjunction with the characters and plot to set a mood, like a literary diorama. The correct setting will intensify the atmosphere you are trying to achieve, as well as act as a supporting character and function as a plot enabler.
As an example, look at the image above from the film The Prestige. We are in a stage magician’s workshop with the magician and his ingénieur (the designer and engineer of his stage tricks). They are discussing the ingénieur’s most recent creation. Now this conversation could have taken place in a coffee shop or in the street, but the workshop has the tools and raw items to make into magic tricks. Already you can see how the setting and action are supporting the characterisation of the two men. However, this setting is also working on another third level. The workshop is wear the real magic happens. The narrative is about the creation of unique and spectacular devices, so as to bamboozle the audience and grow a great reputation. The workshop is one of the central settings to the plot; where reality and magic are interchangeable.
Your settings can act as metaphors and analogies. But never get so wrapped up in your setting that you forget about the other two pillars of your storytelling.