Reverse Engineering of Setting

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Reverse Engineering of Setting by Scott Mellgren

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society. The world is our setting, change it to drive your story.

Space is a void. Place is setting. Time can change everything.

Think of a movie set. Places are usually occupied by characters, background and props. Things happen and events occur. All those things that make a narrative: action, dialogue, story etc.

Getting specific about setting is what propels an author to use setting. Use it like a tool. Setting is as malleable as a main character and the story itself. Setting can drive decisions that authors must make.

Setting can be reverse engineered. Here are two examples I’ll invent to demonstrate for you. The first is a small item, a gun. The second is a big item, the sun.

Example 1: Let’s make a movie. It’s a night scene. Your main character is James Bond and he is being chased. He needs a gun… to take down the international thugs on his tail. How do you give him a gun? How does a gun become available in his surroundings, his place, his action, his needs, his conflict… all we need is a gun.

We see him approach a highly secured building with armed guards. He has the opportunity to relieve a guard of his gun. Being the antihero that he is… Bond is gentle. He only slightly hurts the dude, knocking him out, stuffs him in a bush, hiding him behind a thick stone wall so he won’t get hurt in the cross fire. Bond now has a gun that we generated in his proximity, as part of his setting, with which to eliminate his pursuers. Roll reversal, the prey becomes the hunter, and our main character’s external conflict gets resolved.

Setting made this all happen. I would consider everything I’ve described as the setting except our main character… Government-looking fortress, some armed guards, some international thugs, and the isolated guard who gets knocked out and his prop (which is sometimes called a firearm). Don’t forget about or overlook the first item in this example of setting… It’s a night scene. Bond has probably just had dinner with a lovely lady and he’s wearing a tuxedo. What is a tux? The tux is setting. The tux may also be called wardrobe, characterization, style… lots of good answers.

Example 2: I want the people in my novel to discover an alien race. Zerg. These zerg must have red skin, because my five year old daughter is helping me write this novel, and I let her pick the color. Let’s reverse engineer this choice. One possible excuse for fictional fact… this red skin… a creation of setting or world building… let’s have this alien race’s homeworld… Planet Zerg is lit by a sun that is the color green to justify the fact that the occupants of this planet indeed have red skin. We may not be able to prove this scientifically and in the real world, but a confident author will make this “green sun = red skin” apparent and intuitive to the reader. Red skin can be justified by manipulating the setting.

The key word here is “justify.” Authors are always asking themselves “why.” If you’re a science fiction author, “what color is the sky if the setting is not on Earth?”

Using the sun as an example of setting is large in scale and permanent. And at the start of this piece, I told you that “space is a void”… Ha ha, tricked you.

Using the gun as an example of setting is small in scale and temporary. Easy come easy go.

The novel “Enders Game” by Orson Scott Card shows a human race where all our resources are geared toward galactic war in the name of defense against an alien race that is perceived as a threat. Everything: technological, social, economic, passion… all this setting is justified…

Without aliens, we wouldn’t have war. Without war, we wouldn’t have space based battle stations. Without battle stations, we wouldn’t be training young people for combat. All the props and locations are justified. All the futuristic advancements become believable.

The novel “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart has a family compound occupied by people and structures with everything divided and belonging to a certain generation. The oldest, coolest, most decorated building at the family compound is so important that it, as a piece of setting, becomes something more driving and meaningful to the entire purpose of this novel. My opinion is that personification of a house becomes the antagonist in this novel. If you’ve read this novel, leave a comment as to your opinion. Is my opinion right or wrong?

Reverse engineering happens all the time for authors. “In my novel, it would be so cool to have robotic super suits for our soldiers to wear. They would stand 24 feet tall.” Well, there might be large wild creatures in this world that have required the invention, development and deployment of these super suits. The creatures, an element of setting, helps to justify your cool ideas.

“In my novel, I want an herbal based magic system”… well, make these herbs available in your setting so your characters can make potions. A certain bush can drive your magic system. The magic system can drive your character. The character can drive plot. Setting is an easy way to justify anything in fiction.

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