Schrödinger’s Setting

You’ve probably all heard of Schrödinger’s cat, a thought experiment that has become a widespread internet meme. To summarize, the cat is simultaneously considered alive and dead until someone can be bothered to open the box.

Oh, the uncertainty. If only, I could somehow discern the truth!

Now, about Schrödinger’s setting. I’m sure you all know what the setting is.
ALL: [In a monotone chorus] Where and when the story takes place.

Technically, I guess the setting would be the box, so it’s not that great of an analogy; however, the idea of Schrödinger’s cat, the idea of two opposing states existing simultaneously, is very relevant to setting.

For example, if I take the plot and characters and put them in a different setting, is it the same characters? Is it the same plot?

Often, the answer to these questions is simultaneously “Yes” and “No.” Yes, I just said that I was using the same characters and plot. By definition, the characters and plot have to be the same, or I didn’t do what I said I was going to do. At the same time, they’re not the same at all. They’re in a different place, which changes the flavor of the story. It changes the feel of the characters. It changes our reactions to the characters and the plot.

If I took the original Star Wars trilogy and rewrote it in a steampunk Old West-style world, it would be a very different story – even if every plot point was the same. Even if I didn’t change any characters.

It would be very different. But it would also be the same.

The sameness (despite the obvious differences) is one reason people talk about the same story being used over and over again. The theory is that there are really only 2 stories (or 1, depending on whom you talk to) that authors write over and over and over again with different names for the characters and different settings (sometimes). Maybe, it’s true. Maybe, not.

Maybe, both.

True or not, you can exploit this concept (and Schrödinger’s setting) in so many ways:

1. Use it to brainstorm.

Seriously, take a story you like, and change the setting. Use the setting to re-envision the characters and the plot. Once you make enough setting-driven changes, you’ll have a hard time recognizing the story you started with.

2. Find ways to make your plot and characters setting-dependent.

Remember how I said that the yes/no answer was “Often” true? If you interweave your plot, setting, and characters closely enough, the answer will only be “No.” This goes into the nitty-gritty of characterization (would you be the same person if you grew up somewhere else? If you lived somewhere else?) and plot (how would the character’s choice change in a different location? How would the options change?).

3. Take advantage of the setting to make your story more unique.

If the theoreticians are right, and there are only 1-2 stories, then the biggest difference between them is the setting. Where you choose to put your story can help make it stand out, or it can make it blend in to the thousands of other westerns set in Dodge City. If you feel like your plot and characters are unique (Forget those theoreticians! That’s hogwash!), then, a common setting could emphasize that uniqueness. Find the balance that’s right for your story (and, we hope, the readers).

Plenty of people tend to be on one side or the other of this fence. Either the setting is vital and defines the story, or the setting is an afterthought – characters and plot define the story. Clearly, I tend to be more middle-of-the-road.

What do you think? Is the setting alive, dead, or both?


One thought on “Schrödinger’s Setting

  1. Pingback: People Don’t Listen: 7 Dialogue Tropes to Give Them Away | Words & Deeds

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