Make The Place Threedimensional

Just as three-dimensional characters come alive for readers, so do three-dimensional settings. When you incorporate aspects of all three dimensions into your depiction of setting, your story world becomes more realistic and vibrant.

• Physical. The physical environment encompasses all the factors our senses can discern—sizes and shapes, colors and textures, scents and sounds. For large-scale settings, it includes climate, terrain, natural features, and all the ways human beings have put their stamp upon the land. On a smaller scale, physical characteristics might include the furnishings within a room, the size of the windows, and the angle at which sunlight comes in.

• Sociological. The sociological environment comprises the cultural, economic, and political characteristics of the place and its typical inhabitants. It reflects the residents' understanding and experience of the world they live in, and their beliefs and attitudes about people and societal roles.

• Psychological. Places have personalities. The house on the corner is dreary; the bungalow next door is cheerful. This neighborhood is a wild and crazy place, but the one across town is stodgy and dull. The psychological environment provides much of a setting's atmosphere.

These three environmental dimensions blend to give a place its distinctive nature. A town on a riverbank has industries and recreational facilities that take advantage of this resource. The nationality of the early settlers is imprinted on local food delicacies, festivals, and the architectural style of the historic buildings along Main Street. The university that dominates the town has attracted residents with certain interests, attitudes, biases, and worldviews, and these are different than they would be if the town's major institution were a prison.

The Tip Sheet: Three Dimensional Settings on page 115 lists some of the components that contribute to the physical, sociological, and psychological dimensions of setting. It asks some questions that can help you determine what a place is like and how you might use its attributes in your story.

The tip sheet applies most obviously to regions, cities, or neighborhoods, but the factors listed are just as pertinent if you are working on a smaller scale. Suppose you have chosen a narrow setting: the office building where your protagonist, Elliott, works. The town where it's located is anonymous and nondescript because larger layers of setting are irrelevant to your plot.

The building itself provides the physical environment—its style, its surroundings, its features, its comfort level. Is it a sleek new high-rise or an older building that has suffered years of neglect? Is it cheek-to-jowl with other buildings on a bustling city street or does it sit in lonely splendor amidst acres of parked cars? Do the elevators and air conditioning operate smoothly or conk out regularly? Does Elliott enjoy a corner office with a rosewood desk and an oriental carpet, or does he toil in a cubicle with a gray laminate slab for a work surface and a chair that strains his back?

The nature of the company creates the sociological environment. What is the product or service? This determines the kinds of work performed and the types of people who are Elliott's coworkers. Other contributing factors include the financial fortunes of the firm and its reputation within its industry. Then there's the power structure and Elliott's position within it—not only the organizational chart but the informal systems by which things really get done.

The psychological environment is a product of the corporate culture. Companies have different values and philosophies and standards of conduct; they vary in their management styles and levels of morale. Elliott's firm might take a casual and freewheeling approach to work, rewarding innovation and encouraging friendships among the employees; or it might foment rivalries and insist that established procedures be followed strictly. All of these factors combine to yield distinctive business personalities.

Or consider a house. It has obvious physical characteristics: age, size, style, the materials from which it was built, the items that furnish and decorate it. It even has its own climate: hot or cold, dry or damp. But a house is a sociological and psychological environment as well. It bears the imprint of its occupants— their relationships, styles, interests, and attitudes. Even in a suburban tract of cookie-cutter homes with identical floor plans, the houses take on individuality. The way they are furnished and used reflects the lives lived within them.

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