“Where’s the story set?”
The answer provides many clues about the story in question. While we ask “where”, the setting actually encompasses somewhat more than location. Let’s find out how setting relates to
- story world
- and premise
Each Star Wars story reminds us of the setting before it even starts: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. In being reminiscent of “once upon a time”, the famous opening establishes that this is essentially a fairy tale with spaceships.
“Middle-earth” is a valid answer to the question above for The Lord of the Rings. One might be tempted to explain that this is a fictitious realm, maybe say something about how its technology relates to the actual Earth’s history, and possibly mention the connection to the Midgard of Norse mythology.
So in addition to describing physical space, both these examples contain hints and associations about the time when the events of the story take place.
The setting of The Godfather is, to put it most simply, the mafia. So the setting awakens expectations in the reader or viewer about what the story is likely to contain. If some mobsters don’t appear within the first few scenes, we are apt to get fidgety.
“Wall Street” is the setting for the movies Wall Street, The Big Short, or Margin Call. Here we notice that the physical street in New York is not really what is meant, but rather what that street stands for. So in this sense, setting refers to a particular world with its own codes and governing principles. The point of these stories is that they are narratives (in two cases fictional) whose aim is to show a truth about the world in which they are set.
The original Blade Runner movie is set in the year 2019. But in the actual year 2019, cars don’t fly. So in this case, “set” refers to an alternative 2019. It’s not the real world, it’s the story world.
Star Trek is set in a future in which it is possible to disintegrate molecular matter, “beam” it to another location, and reassemble it without any loss or damage. The story world of Star Trek has grown into a universe, but of course, “you cannot defy the laws of physics.” The point is, these laws of physics seem to be slightly different from ours.
The term story world is useful in order to explain the realities that stories set up – the laws and principles of the particular setting. In the reality of Middle-earth, there are elves, men, hobbits, and other odd creatures. In the reality of The Godfather, men are motivated by a sense of honour, though they may be gangsters.
Location is place. Setting is a collection of places with connotations of time and genre. Story world is setting with the addition of governing principles and perhaps odd laws of physics.
Setting is the first aspect of premise. That’s why so many movie trailers begin with the words “In a world …”.
The second aspect of premise is the protagonist. With these two items of information, we answer two of the main questions people who don’t know a story might ask about it, “Where is it set?” and “Who is it about?”. The third part of the premise is the problem – certainly external, possibly also including the internal.
In the context of the premise, setting refers to “the ordinary world” that the main characters inhabit, which is brought out of joint by a disturbance or “call” – or external problem.
The premise is not the same as the logline because it does not attempt to include all aspects of the story. It effectively merely “sets” the scene. Or in other words, the premise summarises Act 1. When – as a consequence of the disturbance of the ordinary world – the characters set off to address the problem, Act 2 begins.