What The Truman Show Taught Me About Settings

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Recently, my husband and I watched The Truman Show on Netflix. I had first watched this movie in middle school as a part of my language arts class. It had a huge impact on me and when I found out Daniel had never seen it before, I was excited to show it to him. The movie lived up to my memory and, in talking to Daniel about it, it also gave me a writing epiphany!

In case you've never seen the movie, here's a quick recap. After a series of strange events, Truman begins to feel suspicious. His wife is acting odd, men are following him on the street, and giant hunks of metal are falling from the sky. By following his paranoia and clues, he discovers his entire life has been a reality TV show broadcasted 24/7 around the world. There's a number of other twists and turns in the story, and it's definitely worth the watch.

About halfway through the movie, my husband looked at me and said, "Everything in this city is built for his convenience. How does he have no idea its a set?" We had a brief conversation/argument about suspension of disbelief but he had an excellent point. From scheduled sunrises and sunsets, to perfectly manicured lawns and idyllic landscapes, every aspect of Truman's town has been created to make him happy and ensure his life is easy. It's hard to believe it's taken Truman 30 years to look around and say, "Am I character in a story?" And yet, we as writers never consider our characters might be able to look at their world and realize it's been crafted for their plot. 

Think about it like this: When you're working on a new short story or novel, which element of the story do you work on last? The characters, the plot or the setting? If you're like me, you probably focus on your characters and plot as much as you can and your setting is somewhat of an afterthought. Setting is such an essential part of your writing and in many cases can be a character. It deserves to be as well rounded as your main character, instead of tailored to be the most convenient for your protagonist and conflicts. 

So, I have a challenge for myself and for all you writers. On your current project, or maybe your next one, aim to make your character one part of your setting, rather than the focal point. Your setting should be complex and well though out. Not all the details will show up in your story, but that doesn't mean that it's not worth deciding. Here are a few exercises that may help:

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  • Rewrite a scene from a perspective other than your main character, preferably from the point of view of someone who doesn't like your main character. 
  • Write a series of short stories that take place in the same setting as your novel. These may or may not include your main character, but your main character must be secondary. 
  • Answer this series of questions about your world from the SFWA. These can help you learn more about your setting's economy, demographics and more. You don't have answer of these, but do your best! 

How do you make sure your settings are complex and believable? Are there any movies you've watched lately that have inspired Epiphanies in your writing? Let me know!