SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the importance of setting in writing
So, there is an old joke that goes something along the lines of what eats shoots and leaves? Well, what is the context? If the context, that is the setting, is in the old west, then the answer may be a cowboy (or a cowgirl). He (or she) walks into a bar, eats, shoots up the place, and leaves the bar.
But, if on the other hand, the setting is in the Sydney Zoo (one of my favorite zoos by the way) then the answer may very well be a Koala Bear. Because they eat shoots and leaves (as in Eucalyptus leaves).
When writing, the setting can become almost like a character in the story. I’m not talking like a couch that comes alive and eats the guests at a dinner party, type of character. Rather I am talking about it should influence the way the characters act, limit their options, and even force decisions upon them.
When applied to technical writing, the importance of setting also influences the way the character behaves. For instance if I am writing about managing a desktop computer, the way that I do that for a home or a small business is different than the way I handle the task in an international business organization that spans dozens of countries and involves hundreds of thousands of desktop computers.
In fiction, setting can even tell us about the character. For example, a character who takes his date to McDonalds on Valentines day, is obviously a different type of character than someone who takes his date to a four star Michelin rated French Restaurant. Now, setting does not imply value judgment, it is simply an indicator. For example, the guy who takes his date to McDonalds, may have lost his job, and being a responsible person, does not want to run up a lot of debt in going out to eat – even if it is Valentines day. In fact, it might also tell us something about his date as well.
On the other hand, the french restaurant guy may be having financial troubles, may be massively in debt and planning on filing for bankruptcy. He feels that he wants to max out all his credit before going to court so he can “get his moneys worth.” It might also tell us something about his date as well – they are not willing to spend Valentines Day at a burger joint.