Terrie Farley Moran is a short-story writer published in EQMM, AHMM, and a number of mystery anthologies. In 2009, one of her stories earned a place on the Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Mysteries list. She is not only a writer of short stories, however; she is also one of the field’s most avid readers of them. She even wore the editor’s hat in 2011 for an anthology of original short stories, the second book from the Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She’s obviously someone who has thought a lot about the storyteller’s art and she’s here to offer her view of where it often all begins. . . . —Janet Hutchings
Most fiction writers will tell you that plot, character, and setting are the underpinnings of the sturdy three-legged stool that supports a well-told yarn.
And as much as we all agree to the general premise, I find it amusing that arguing about the relative importance of each leg is a full-time parlor game among writers. Someone will suggest that a mind-bending plot is all that matters. Another writer counters that characters are the most important story element. Whether a character is empathetic or offensive doesn’t matter as long as the reader cares about the character’s plight. Then there are folks convinced that an exotic setting will draw the reader into a tale so that they can “live” in the unique environment for a while.
And where do I stand on all this? Well, I come down firmly on the side of setting. Nope. I’m not kidding. Think about it. Would the story of Beauty and the Beast be as powerful if the Beast lived in a two-bedroom apartment nestled over a tea shop, rather than a huge and forbidding castle in a dense and dark forest? I don’t think so.
It’s not that I’m committed to using only story times and places that are out of the ordinary. On the contrary, I often find a local setting that intrigues me and I develop a story to show it off. A while ago I wrote “Fontaine House” (EQMM, August 2012). It came about because I had rented a small place for a couple of months on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida. I quickly became enamored of the river and day after day I spent time communing with its majesty. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the Caloosahatchee had a story to tell and it wanted me to tell it. So I created a family who resided about twenty miles down river on an island in the Gulf of Mexico, and then I invented a historical house a few miles up river. Finally I tied the geography and the people together with one present-day murder and one Civil War-era murder. In my heart, the river remains the moving force of the entire tale.
Setting is the inspiration for much of my writing, particularly for stories that take place in my native New York City. Times Square sounds one way. Battery Park sounds another. Once I hear the voices, the story comes together.
I am the first to admit that my love of setting is not a requirement for a great read. There are wonderful stories that could have been written in nearly any generic setting, but in some stories the setting defines the characters and intensifies the plot. As an example, I suggest you read “Misprision of Felony” by O’Neil De Noux, available in the December 2012 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The story has powerful characters and a fascinating plot, but I contend that it is the setting of post-Katrina New Orleans that gives the story its most potent emotional impact. Take a look and tell me if you agree.
Terrie, I’ll never forget the Bronx setting you used so beautifully in the Murder New York Style Story, “Strike Zone.” I say let’s make it a four-legged stool. If all four legs aren’t strong, the thing is going to wobble.
I like the four-legged stool metaphor Anita mentioned, come to think of it. Setting establishes the stage for the drama to take place, true. And believing that you are in a place, as a reader, is the first step to suspending disbelief. It is also true that setting plays a deciding role in some stories that would not be as good in another setting. I can’t say, however, settings in all stories are more important than any other element. A strong character, for instance, will be strong inside four walls or in any other setting. Other stories are driven by a strong narrator, or a plot that delivers a big idea, or incredible intrigue. Whether one element or another is stronger in a story, the other elements are necessary to keep the stool from wobbling.
Murder at the P&Z by Dorothy Hayes will be published in May
You’re right, of course, but then what good is a great setting with weak characters and a lame plot? The debate continues!
Great post, Terrie. I agree that setting is not absolutely vital for a good read, but when it IS essential to the story, a vivid setting can add a great deal to its enjoyment, and even its believability. Certainly setting is one of the main elements of fiction, right up there with plot, POV, characterization, dialogue, etc.
Good post. I totally agree about the importance of setting. Without that “place” thing in my mind, I just can’t picture a story at all. Terrie, you are a master of dealing with “setting.” The kids in my neighborhood often tie a sneaker or two to high telephone wires. (I guess they do it as a challenge when it’s late at night and they don’t have a lot to do.) Anyway, whenever I see one of those hanging sneakers, I picture your wonderful story, “The Sneaker Tree.”
I agree that setting can be an important part of the story. Done well, setting can enhance the plot and reveal character.
I’d like to chime in on the place of setting in fiction. I confess I prefer novels – I love the long, long time I have to sink into a very long piece … that’s just my preference, I realize, as most crime readers love short stories! When I begin a book, the first thing that swoops all over my consciousness is my setting. The place. The where. I let it simmer, and breathe it in, it sinks way down in my lowest sub-conscious til I know I’m ready to come up and start on a plot. So, that is my response to your very good piece here! Thelma Straw, MWA-NY in Manhattan
I think setting’s the easiest “leg” to neglect in some ways, so it’s more precious to me when I find an author’s made it rich, interesting, and important. I enjoy what’s not as commonly found, and loads of character backstory is everywhere–not the same as true characterization, I don’t think–but learning about a character through interaction with a particular setting (not generic bar, miscellaneous cold-water flat) is, for me, a wonderful way to sink into in someone’s story.
I agree, Terrie, setting is vital. It suggests atmosphere & helps the reader visualize the story. Right along with setting, the historical period in which the action takes place establishes credibility. Terrific post!
I cannot agree more. And when a certain locale comes to light in the news, stories with that setting are particularly potent. Just read two novels set in NOLA. And the setting just make them come alive. Of course, hundreds with now be set in Far Rockaway and the northern Jersey beaches.
Realistic settings are important to mystery fiction. Myself, I created a town in Central NJ similar to the one I lived in for my Kim Reynolds mystery series. I think it added to the credibility of the novels.
First I apologize for seeming to ignore the conversation. Last night, I posted a few hours after Catherine but somehow my post frittered away. So I’ll start by thanking everyone for commenting here and for helping me to bring setting forward as an essential part of a good story.
Gail, I have to tell you that as soon as the call for submissions came in for the anthology that holds “The Sneaker Tree” I knew I wanted to write about McNeill Park and 9/11. My daughter was visiting from Florida and when we were driving somewhere, she pointed to some sneakers hanging from the wires above and said, “Oh, kids still do that?” At that moment I knew I’d found my reason for the protag to keep going back to McNeill year after year.
Leigh, you’re right a setting can’t carry a story if there is a weak plot and uninteresting characters, but a decent setting can help a great plot and strong characters shine.
Jacqueline, an author-created setting can be the ideal. You can give your characters and plot exactly what they need.