Is your setting big enough for your story? Middle-earth or Manhattan, you need to give the same consideration to where your character fights his battles or duels over cocktails as you do to their dreams and desires. If you don’t, you risk two things:
First, the story might suffer. This is obvious for survival stories, where nature is the antagonist. But it is also true for To Kill a Mockingbird, where both the heat and the social constraints press the characters to reinterpret their values. Too often, writers take setting off the table, and they lose the potential for conflict. West Side Story would not have been as effective in the suburbs.
Second, the story is less attractive. The people who make James Bond and Mission Impossible films know this. Most of the locales for their stories are places where people visit in droves. In fact, those movies take advantage of millions of dollars invested in promotion and in giving visitors wonderful experiences once they get there. Why shouldn’t your story take the same approach? Why go to Des Moines (actually, a lovely city in Iowa, but not a vacation destination) when you can go to Dubai?
Of course, a story can take place in horrible places. I do not want a holiday in Shawshank Prison or the Alien-infested Nostromo. But I don’t mind watching characters in these extreme environments. Those settings will repel as many people as they attract, but they will attract enough to make me happy.
Bigger does not need to be outrageous. Even modest locations, like those in Jane Austen, can make a story bigger if they are keenly observed and play an important role in the story. Her civilized locales in England may not have high concept going for it, but there is enough detail so readers feel immersed in the reading experience.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to create a bigger locale:
- If I wrote a travel brochure for this place, would it attract any visitors?
- Can I change the location to one that will make people curious about my story?
- Can I imagine a setting that will put more pressure on my characters, forcing them to make difficult and irreversible decisions?
- Have I imagined my story’s location so deeply that I can describe it completely enough to immerse my reader?
Of course, conflict and emotion are what a story is about, so the setting (usually) should not overwhelm these. But attention to setting and deliberately making it bigger can become a vital part of enticing and holding a reader to enter into the world of your story.