Shattering the Setting Stereotype

By Stoney M. Setzer

As most middle-school students could tell you, fiction has three major components: plot, characters, and setting. Setting, of course, refers to the time/space backdrop in which the characters act out the plot of the story.
Depending upon what genre a given story or novel falls into, we tend to expect certain sorts of settings. For example, when we think of a mystery story, we may think of police departments, locked rooms, or offices belonging to seedy private investigators. If we think of espionage stories, we usually think of exotic, faraway locales frequented by the glamorous and wealthy--the sorts of places that Joe and Jane Average will only see on TV or in books. Although these are obviously not the only places where such stories can happen, these settings are so linked with their genres that they almost become stereotypical.
Likewise, we have our own stereotypical settings in speculative fiction. Outer space, alien planets, medieval kingdoms, or creepy mansions tend to dominate most people’s ideas of spec-fic settings. Although there is nothing wrong with such oft-employed settings (depending on the needs of a given plot, I’ve used some of them myself), I’d like to take a moment to encourage everyone to consider shattering the setting stereotype.


One of the biggest influences in my writing has been that of classic Twilight Zone reruns. Several years back I tried to determine what it was about that series that made such a lasting impression upon me. I came up with a lot of possibilities: The inventive storytelling, the twist endings…and, believe it or not, the settings.
Sure, some of the episodes took place on distant planets, but most of them didn’t. The majority of them dealt with ordinary people, in ordinary settings, who have something extraordinary happen to them. A prime example is one of its most famous episodes, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (the Shatner-on-a-plane episode). It took a relatively mundane setting, that of flying cross-country on an airplane, and made it unforgettable by sticking a gremlin on the wing.
Because of the setting, the viewer is left with a man-that-could-happen-to-anybody feeling.
That is exactly the sort of effect I shoot for in my stories. My plots fall squarely into the spec-fic category, but I try to set the plots in places that are familiar to average people so as to bring the events as close to home as possible. Such strategy also involves using average people as my characters, but that’s another topic for another blog.


All of us have been told at least once to write about what we know. My challenge is to write about where you know.
I have spent thirty of my thirty-three years in Griffin, GA, a town of about 25,000 people situated approximately 40 miles south of Atlanta. Although I have never called my hometown by name in my stories--and indeed, I usually have different town names in each story--Griffin and the surrounding area is what I picture. Sometimes I may be picturing one of the “mill villages” scattered throughout town, or I may envision the large research area that the University of Georgia has here if a laboratory of some sort figures into my tale. Either way, it gives me a sort of ready-made stage for my plots and characters.
Some may think that this is a “lazy” way to create a setting, but I take the opposite viewpoint. To me, it takes more creatively to tell a story about aliens or supernatural events in a small Southern town than it does to tell the same story on another planet (or even in a big city here on Earth). It forces me to be more creative, because I have to think of logical reasons why the story should happen in such a parochial place, as well as how the story can believably unfold in that setting. Really, it’s a challenge, and it carries the pay-off of hitting closer to home.
That’s my two cents’ worth. Authors, give it a shot. Try setting your next spec-fic story in your own backyard.


Deborah Cullins Smith said...

I remember that TZ episode with William Shatner! I have most of them on DVD now, and rewatch them often. I love the twist Rod Serling employed, and I use that in my own stories as well. One advantage I've had in life has been mobility. I never looked on it as an "advantage" when I had to change schools every time Dad got new orders, (ARMY) but now I do. Then I married a man who went active duty in the Air Force, so we traveled some more. I've lived in enough locales to keep me in settings for the rest of my life! But I still enjoy those medieval settings and exotic places that I haven't seen, too! I guess either way we are exercising the wonderful imaginations God gave us!

Terri said...

I'm writing a novel (or more accurately writing at a novel) for National Novel Writing Month right now which takes place on a lunar colony. The typical lunar colony you see on TV is a big dome sitting on top of the lunar surface with the inside all shiny corridors with doors that go whoosh.

Since my colony has near unlimited resources because the moon is the only source of a drug that can prevent most forms of heart disease, I decided to go a different direction. The colony is underground but is made like a small town with parks, old fashioned store fronts, even Victorian cottages. It's like a small town with people gliding around.

But I come from small town America and I drew from Eureka and Arcata California and my current hometown of Reedley for elements of the setting.

Oh, BTW, I based most of the colony on the then "current" technology that Gerald K. Oneill used in High Frontier which was a proposal for an orbiting space habitat. As an Homage to Oneill I name the oribital colony my Main Character had a layover at Oneill Habitat.


Grace Bridges said...

I've never seen TZ, guess it never caught on in New Zealand... but you're right. I also feel strongly about writing places I know. Of course, now and then you get a space story, but I like to relate that to the here-and-now as much as possible. Did the travellers' ancestors come from Old Earth? Or did they somehow cross into another dimension? Even with Narnia, you feel it could happen to you. That's the connection I'm after.

gificor said...

I agree with you Stoney that your own backyard can serve as a perfect setting for a speculative fiction story. My short story "The Timeship of Semak" is actually based on a small farming town in Illinois. I live in southern Illinois, and that can provide all kinds of weird tales. Here the truth is definitely stranger than fiction. Just check out the life of the gangster Charlie Birger.

Terri said...


I agree with you. I think for me I like stories that have some foothold in my world. I think that's one of the problems I have with a lot of the sword and sorcery fantasy fiction. It's like medieval Europe but it's not Medieval Europe and I feel lost, like how am I knowing this.

Narnia has kids from our world stepping into this other dimension. The premise of LOTR is that it is part of this worlds deep mythical past based on some runes which were supposedly found.

I personally feel disoriented reading fantasy fiction without some connection to this world.


Headless Unicorn Guy said...

Well, Stephen King sets a lot of his horror in contemporary Maine. It's where he grew up, where he lives, and where he has Local Area Knowledge at 100%.

Plus, as he says several times in Danse Macabre (one of two non-fiction books, about the horror genre in general), the thought of coming across the monster or supernatural in your everyday setting is in a way more horrible than if you first go into the monster's home turf (Frankenstein's Lab, Dracula's Castle, the Mummy's Tomb). Because you are not safe at home.

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

Terri --

Still sticking with Stephen King, in On Writing (his other non-fiction book), he says that a writer's responsibility is to tell the truth to the reader.

In an exotic genre, this means there should be some connection to the reader's reality. At the very least, when something happens -- some action, some reaction, some attitude that could also happen in the reader's reality -- it should ring true, no matter what the exotic setting or circumstances. Thus this known "truth" makes real and plausible the fantastic elements.