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The bigger, and more famous, a city, the more it tends to show up in thrillers. The biggest ones - New York, London, Paris, Tokyo - have been set-pieces in any number of thrillers, and I can assume most of my readers have read other novels using them for setting.

When I write a thriller featuring a major city like this, I'm not sure what atmosphere I should be aiming for: Do I want my description of the city to play to the reader's expectations, to give them what they're expecting? Or should I prefer a fresh angle, an unusual take, something substantially different from the typical portrayal?

I feel like familiarity risks cliche and dullness; but a significant twist may leave readers feeling cheated, not getting what they love about the familiar settings to begin with. Narratively, I could go either way here; my choices in detail and atmosphere will obviously affect the segments within the major cities, but the novel as a whole will be fine either way.

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Friendly plug: this is a seed question for out Genre Q&A contest, running now! –  Standback Nov 19 '13 at 10:01
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3 Answers 3

Make the atmosphere and the perspective serve the story, not vice versa.

It's a different story if your own home - the place you know in and out - transforms into a battle arena and either serves as your weapon, its nooks and crannies providing an advantage over the oppressor, or a traitor - a years-old companion turning on you and places you knew to be your safe haven becoming deathtraps. Or maybe you knew and hated the city forever, and today the city hates you back? Or maybe the streets you'd known long open a new mystery, where an unknown force operates - and you don't understand it. In time you may form an alliance with the living city, against the invasive force.

It's a different story if you're thrown into a big, strange, alien place and forced to swim upstream - while under fire. The city is a jungle which you need to overcome, find a way, where the antagonist feels at home and uses the advantages mercilessly. Or it's a second, impartial antagonist, hostile both to you and to your opponent - giving you little advantages when you're about to declare your rage and hate, betraying and thwarting an opponent you'd never beat alone.

Summing up: Think of the city as yet another character in your story, a live, feeling character in one of primary roles. What role you assign that character is entirely up to you. A villain, an impartial observer, a condescending god, a trusted friend, a traitor, a prankster, a judge - it's all up to you, as the writer of the story. Pick a different role and the story will change. Characterize it as if you'd characterize a person. Is it a person the protagonist (and readers) know well, or a mysterious stranger - that's up to you to decide.

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As I said, I can make it work both ways. NYC can serve the role that I need - but it can do so while being cocky and bustling, or while being, say, a mosaic of warm tight-knit communities. Both can be appropriate; the first is more familiar; both would work just fine for my story. Of course it'll have an effect, but both effects are good for me. What I was trying to describe in the question is that familiar vs. fresh are the two effects I'm trying to decide between now. –  Standback Nov 19 '13 at 13:25
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@Standback: If both merely "would work" or "be appropriate", then likely both are not enough. Don't make it a background. Make it an actor with one of lead roles. Think of the role the city is to serve, and then decide between whether "familiar" or "fresh" serves that role better. Looming stranger - "Fresh". Friend - "familiar". Traitor - "Familiar". Ruthless enemy - "Fresh". Misunderstood loner - "Fresh". Neighbor with secrets - "familiar". If it was any other genre, just background would be fine. In a thriller, it's too important to be left without a role. –  SF. Nov 19 '13 at 13:33
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I am a writer, and this is my credo: If I can make it work at all, then I can make it awesome. –  Standback Nov 19 '13 at 14:37
    
@Standback Well, decide what role the city plays in your story. If you still have problems determining which of the two approaches is better, post that role and then we can discuss. –  SF. Nov 20 '13 at 9:08
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I think you can have both in the story. I think the reader won't feel cheated as long as you don't make a big geographical mistake. What you can do is to add little details to add some familiarity, and use the rest to produce something fresh (the unique way in which the character sees the world). For instance, in the novels I read, authors describe the surroundings in such a way that seems very new and unique. But they also add a few subtle details like mentioning 7-Elevens and Mcdonalds. It makes me think: "Oh, this is just like in my city. Feels familiar."

To give you another example, in a story I'm writing, I chose a famous mountain in my country (though not very famous worldwide). I did my research and I added some accurate geographical info (e.g. coniferous trees, forest railway, etc). But also, at the same time, I describe the surroundings based on the character's feelings. Like, when he first arrives the mountain he sees the trees as giants guarding the forest (since he feels at ease, protected). Later on, when he's following a mysterious girl through the forest, he describe being in the woods as being at the bottom of a dark sea or being an intruder (reflecting his fear and uncertainty). I believe the surroundings should be a reflection of the character moods and feelings (Or as SF. said, "...it should serve the story").

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If you're going to set something in a familiar city, I want all the details to prove you know it. I want it to be like when we watch Elementary or Person of Interest and we're constantly pausing to see what street the show was filmed on because we recognize the bodega on the corner.

If you're just setting the book in A Major City, and the character and flavor and personality of the city are not any real part of the story, then pick something fresh. Don't send your character to W80th Street and not bother to mention Zabar's.

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I think "do your research" always applies for setting, whether I'm writing about NYC or Nebraska. Are you saying famous cities get held to higher standards of scrutiny? I'm not certain I agree. –  Standback Nov 19 '13 at 11:15
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@Standback If you have a small town, or an unfamiliar city, your readership is much less likely to have heard of it or know it. So you can use Johnny Stecchino's Pizza on Surf Avenue in East Mussel Schuck, Long Island and nobody will know or care if the place is actually called The Leaning Tower of Pizza. But if your character is on the UWS, there's a much stronger chance that your reader may have been there, and will say "Hey, that block has Zabar's! It's not a pizzeria!" Unless you call it "Zlotsky's" and are deliberately masking the store name. –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 19 '13 at 12:56
    
So... you're saying don't write about big cities to begin with, unless you've got terrific research? I'm not arguing with that, but I don't feel it answers the question. –  Standback Nov 19 '13 at 13:21
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Heh... Google StreetView is your friend! –  SF. Nov 19 '13 at 13:45
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@Standback Your question was "Do I make my setting play to the reader's expectations or do something fresh?" My argument is that "the reader's expectations" = "realistic and correct detail." My expectation as a reader is that if you set the story in NYC, get it right. If you choose "fresh," then the detail of the real world does not matter, and you can make something up. It can be in a big city, but an imaginary one. Does that feel like more of an answer? –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 19 '13 at 14:19
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