Settings in Your Novel That Work As Triggers

When choosing settings for your scenes, you want to think about the kinds of places that will allow the emotions, needs, dreams, and fears of your characters to come out. Certain places will trigger these things to come to the surface and will stir memories. Your character has a past, and even if she never visits any of the places in her past in your novel, other places can draw out feelings and memories. This happens to us all the time.

Of course, if you are putting your characters in places they’ve been before, or they are living in the same town their whole life, those memories and feelings are closer to the surface. The point it, you want to use your setting to help bring out your themes, drive your plot, and reveal character. You don’t have to do this, but by ignoring setting you are missing out on a great tool in your writer’s toolbox that you can use in a powerful way.

In last week’s post I had you think about the places in your past that evoked special memories or feelings. There will be moments in your novel when you want your character to realize something, learn something, change in some way, be affected profoundly. You can call setting into play in these instances. You want the protagonist’s relationship to her world to grab you. And you can bring her world alive with rich detail by showing her world through her eyes and the effect that world has on her.

Ask Your Character

Here are some questions you can ask your character about the setting she finds herself in, whether it’s the overall setting of the novel or a particular place in a particular scene you want to write:

  • What might be special about this place that a person passing through might not notice?
  • How does she feel when she is there?
  • What memory or emotion does the place evoke in her and why? Can you come up with something that happened there that ties into the wound from her past? To a hope or dream she may have had but lost somewhere along the way?
  • How does she look at not just the place but the kind of life she has there (professional, family, community)?
  • What is her one special secret place she likes to go to and what does she do there?
  • What is the one place she avoids and would never go to?
  • What can she notice while she is there that no one else notices?
  • What special thing can you have happen in this special place that reveal something secret about her? About her dreams? About her fears?
  • What one memory can you come up with that is triggered by her being in this place?
  • What was/is her happiest moment in this place? Her saddest?
  • If she has come back after a period of time, how has this place changed for her, and how does that change make her feel? Happy, sad, nostalgic, fearful?
  • What conflicting feelings does she have about being there?

 Setting That Triggers Memories

One novel that comes to my mind in posing these questions is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams. This book is all about a character who is dealing with setting. Her protagonist has returned to the town she grew up in after many years. Throughout the novel as she deals with her senile father, the neighbors she thought she knew, and her memories that come back to haunt her, we watch how this place and her past assault and change her radically. It’s a book all about how setting can trigger change and awareness. How it can make us step back and assess out present lives in the light of our past.

So, as you think about setting for your novel overall and for individual scenes, think about the themes you are bringing out. Think about not just the plot points the setting can help reveal but also the deep character traits that can be triggered by locale and environment. We like to stroll down memory lane—both figuratively and literally. Sometimes we do it out of a masochistic desire to feel hurt or pain, or to wallow in painful memories. Other times it’s out of nostalgia, to try to capture a feeling we somehow lost along the way. These are things your characters can do too. They are human things we humans do. So when you get ready to write a scene, don’t just plop your character in the closest coffee shop down the street. First think about what you need to reveal in the scene. Then think of the best place to put your character so that this moment in the scene will be enhanced or triggered by the setting. Let her look at something she’s seen before but in a different way. Then watch what happens.

This week, if you have a scene to write, ask the questions above and try to pick a setting that will be perfect for what your scene needs to accomplish. If you are in the rewrite stage and you have a flat or boring scene set in a boring place, think of a new setting in which to unfold this scene, and pick something that will trigger a feeling or memory in your character that will help advance the plot or reveal something significant about your character. Share what you got from this experience in the comments!


10 Responses to “Settings in Your Novel That Work As Triggers”

  1. Debra Newton-Carter December 5, 2012 at 2:57 am #

    What a great post! I was struggling with what my main character, a 14-year-old boy in the first scene, would be thinking about other than the obvious feelings. You got me thinking about using some of the thoughts and feelings I had in a similar situation…but then to translate it for age, gender, and time…it really evokes more inner conflict.

  2. Stéphanie Noel December 5, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    This is a great post. We often use a location or other without thinking about how it can be useful to the story. I have several scenes in mind now that I want to edit following this advice. Thank you

  3. Betsy A. Riley December 6, 2012 at 5:14 am #

    Very nice post. You were able to quantify what had been an intangible guideline for me. Having it spelled out so clearly will help me strengthen my sense of place (and understand why it is so important to writing).

  4. Michael LaRocca December 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    Thank you yet again for bailing me out of a mess with my work in progress. I’d already decided one of my characters would be wandering through over 5000 years of flashbacks in a dementia-induced fugue. Settings would be perfect triggers for this.

    • Michael LaRocca December 6, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

      You got my vote, especially since this isn’t the first time you’ve bailed me out of a rough patch in this particular novel.

      • cslakin December 6, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

        Thanks for the kind words and the vote!

  5. Alison Strachan December 7, 2012 at 3:23 am #

    Amazing post.I can’t tell you how much I needed to hear this write now. I’ve been stuck on writing this one particular connecting scene that features one of my main male protags and I’ve had problems getting under his skin. I now have a whole new way of approaching the scene – and it is so obvious! U rock!!

    • cslakin December 7, 2012 at 6:59 am #

      Thanks so much–glad this information is helpful!

  6. Feather Stone December 8, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    I have voted for you. I truly believe you deserve to win. Thank you for your work in helping authors reach their highest potential and realize success in their writing.

    • Garrisonjames December 18, 2012 at 8:43 am #

      Just catching-up on a few things, so please excuse me for being late to the party. This is a really effective approach to open things up from the character’s viewpoint, to Show and not just Tell what makes the setting worthwhile or notable. This post has given me some ideas for how to pursue some of the spin-off stories that have been bumping around in the back of my skull. Thanks!

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