Setting the stage: Tone and realism in fiction

Walter White from Breaking Bad

By Joanbanjo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the wonderful things about art is that it can take us anywhere. But when constructing a setting, particularly a real world setting, it’s important to get a good sense of the tone and level of realism you want your work to have. If the setting isn’t consistent, well researched, and appropriate for the plot, it won’t be effective, and the story will be easily lost.

A note: Even though this is a blog about writing, in this post and likely others, I’m going to use a lot of movies as examples. I do this because movies are a more universal cultural experience. It’s easier to find a movie almost everyone knows about or has seen than to find a book to fill the same purpose.

Keep it consistent

Even when writing a story that takes place in the real world, it’s important to keep the tone and level of realism consistent. For example, Kill Bill has created a world in which over-the-top moments like Beatrix punching her way out of a coffin seem perfectly natural. But if you create a gritty, realistic world like in Breaking Bad, that scene would be jarring and out of place. It’s important to keep the reader immersed in the world, and not break their suspension of disbelief. If you want those punchy, (excuse the pun) unrealistic moments, you have to build a world where they fit in seamlessly.

Keep it appropriate

The tone and level of realism has to be appropriate for the plot you write. For example, it would be a terrible idea to have Tony Soprano fight the Crazy 88s, the large group of armed guards that Beatrix takes on with her katana in the first Kill Bill movie. Tony Soprano is set up as a very realistic and sometimes vulnerable Mafia boss who runs the business in a typical way, and his plot arcs revolve as much around his family as his work. Kill Bill is a pulpy revenge story, the type that’s perfect for an over-the-top violent world.

Do your research

Whether your world is realistic or enjoyably ridiculous, it’s important to do your homework. If you’re creating a realistic setting, the facts matter. For example, you’ll need a solid understanding of police forensic procedures if you want someone to get away with a murder.

If you’re creating a setting that plays fast and loose with reality, you’ll need to look for stories with emotional context that you can bring to the piece. For me, learning about the way people thought about and sometimes even revered the Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar gave me some great ideas for my own novel, even though the setting I’ve made is closer to Sin City than Colombia.

In the end, consistency is the most important thing to consider when creating a setting. If Walter White crashed a motorcycle into an escaping helicopter, it would completely break the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, and that’s a death sentence for a story.


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