Creating a rich and fascinating setting for your story is fun. It’s so much fun. And it can be rewarding, too. The more work you put into your setting, the more detail and depth, the more your book will come alive–if the backdrop seethes and breathes, your characters will feel more real, more anchored, and it’s also like you’re giving them another actor to play to. More business for them to do (“he picked an orange from the vendor’s cart and pressed it to his nose, inhaling the scent of far-off Valyria, while he ignored the viscount’s leading question”), more set-pieces to escape from, more, more, more.
And that’s the trap: too much setting. Setting requires a lot of research (or at least a lot of pondering) and when you learn something while writing a book, the temptation to tell your readers all about it can be overwhelming. You can spend whole chapters talking about the average humidity and rainfall that your Antarctic research station sees. Sometimes readers love this stuff, and eat it up with a spoon. Other times it takes them right out of the narrative. Your plot disappears and your book becomes about polar meteorology. Did you intend to write a book about polar meteorology? If not, well… now you are.
The other way too much setting can get in your way is with the tone of your piece. If your protagonist just lost their spouse, if their kids don’t love them, if they’re dying of some horrible disease… but they live in a land of sun and palm trees and scantily clad beach kids, well… the reader’s going to think maybe everything isn’t so bad, after all.
There is one great solution to both of these problems. Own them. If, during your research you discover a secret love for isobars and thermoclines and rain shadows, for the sake of all that’s holy: go ahead and write a book about polar meteorology! It’s probably a niche book, but who knows? If you can make it compelling, go forth and prosper. If your setting is at odds with your tone–make a point of that! Use it. Use the crash of the sundappled waves to let your character meditate on deep time, on the size of life. Or make them even more miserable because everyone around them is so happy.
There’s a big secret here, one you should have learned in Creative Writing 101, but probably didn’t. Stories change as we write them. The stories we want to tell change. But you should always stay in control. Know what kind of story you want to write, know what it says. Know that you want it to say that. Be ready to change everything on a moment’s notice–but always make changes you want to make.
What’s most important in your story? The plot? The characters (99% of the time, it’s one of these two)? Then setting should exist only and entirely in service to your plot or your characters. There’s an easy rule for this. Ask yourself, before you start to write, whether your story could take place somewhere else. Whether it would work just as well in Kansas. Or the third planet of Altair. Or under the sea. If so, then your setting isn’t necessary. It’s just there for color and flavor. Those are important things, but they’re not super important, and so your setting can be chopped up, mutilated, or safely ignored as you choose.
Was your answer no? Can your story only take place in one particular setting? Would it seem impossible someplace else? Is this literally the only place in the universe this story could happen? Then suddenly setting is super important. Still–you want to work with it. Not in it. Never, ever let it become more important than the people who inhabit it.
Setting is seductive. It’s incredibly dangerous. Don’t let it take over your story–instead, make it work for you.