Which comes first, the plot or the setting? Does your plot create the setting or does the setting create the plot? For every writer, the answer is different. Location should be very important and it should influence the plot, but it shouldn’t overshadow it completely. Your setting can also be a plot in itself.
In the case of science fiction novels, fantasy novels, and men’s adventure novels, the setting is essential. Scorching deserts, frozen mountains, unusual predators of Middlearth, and spy camps become antagonists. The setting takes on characteristics that seem to almost be consciously trying to defeat the protagonist. Whether your novel takes place in the past or the future, the plot must feel real to your readers and should match your protagonist’s personality. After all, you wouldn’t want to give your character the power to see through metal objects but then have the entire story take place in a log cabin up in Alaska, right? Of course not.
When it comes to setting, limit yourself to the stereotypical settings of particular genres. For example, if you are writing a fantasy story, consider the setting in contemporary Los Angeles. One popular example of a fantasy set outside a fantasy realm is Disney’s Enchanted where Amy Adams plays a princess who’s been banished to live in modern day New York City.
The setting can greatly influence the plot in more direct ways as well. In Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, the setting and the plot are almost one in the same. The protagonist is a lawyer that is sent to a mansion where the previous owner had died. The mansion is located on the edge of flood plains that keeps him trapped whenever the tides are up. Surrounding the manor is a marsh where the woman’s children are buried. Throughout the years, the legend says that whenever the Woman in Black is seen, a child in the village dies. Now, as an author, if you were to replace the setting with anything but a very small seaside village in the early 1900s, the entire plot would collapse. This is a prime example of how the plot and the setting are one in the same.
In another example, Romancing the Stone, the plot and setting are completely different, yet they feed off of each other. The plot is focused on Joan Wilder, a New York romance novelist who tries to rescue her kidnapped sister. The setting, which is in Columbia, is there to simply provide conflict and adventure for the readers and has very little to do with the plot. Romancing the Stone could’ve just as easily taken place in Antarctica or the Sahara and instead of an emerald, the treasure could’ve been a priceless artifact or a bar of gold. The plot, in this case, did not directly impact the setting, but it did provide originality and excitement for the reader. And through the protagonist’s experiences inside a new culture, the audiences got to see a new side of Joan Wilder and her view of the world.
Setting and plot go hand in hand. They are not entirely independent of each other, but one does not overshadow the other. Instead, they play off each other like paddles in a game of Ping-Pong.
About Logan K. Scott
Logan K. Scott is the author of numerous successful mystery/thrillers. In addition to his publishing work, he has a BA degree from Brooks Institute and is the writer and producer for more than a dozen films.