Friday, February 3, 2012

How Important is Setting in a Novel?

For the next few weeks I'd like to post answers (hopefully a lot of answers) to this question, while putting in my own two cents.  This initial entry is going to tackle the most basic question (so basic in fact that if I don't feel it is adequately addressed, either in this post or in messages and comments received, I'm going to run at it again).

Here goes:  Just what heck is Setting?

The quick answer is that it is a description of place, and perhaps of time - a lay of the land if you will.

Here is one of the most famous Settings in all of literature: East of Eden.  Here's how Steinbeck opens his classic.

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.  It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls into Monteray Bay.

We might fault Steinbeck for Telling rather than Showing but he lets us know two things right up front.

1.  Here's where I'm going to place my story.
2.  This important place will affect the characters throughout.

In this example, Setting is pure description.  What do the surroundings look like?

Before we go even another step let's get the old saw about Setting out on the table.  If you write you've heard it a hundred times.  We can't really address the subject of Setting without stating it.

Setting, if done correctly, becomes a character unto itself. 

If you let this statement perculate around in your brain, you are drawn into an inescapable conclusion, especially if you agree with it.  Setting might just be a little bit more than a description.  Setting might come precariously close to what many readers call 'The Tone of the Novel'. 

Steinbeck's initial setting doesn't quite set the tone.  We can't tell if the novel will be lighthearted, gloomy, mysterious, silly, or a hundred other Settings that strive to set a pervasive tone throughout a novel.  We don't even get a sense as to the voice of the piece, who will tell us this tale set in Salinas, and what we can expect from this narrator.  But let's be fair.  Steinbeck didn't just write one paragraph.  If you read further into the opening you'll see he draws us into his Setting by personalizing it immediately through a congenial character.

Before I lay down this quote, I need to give credit to a wonderful writing teacher, Ron Rozelle, who I will borrow from liberally whenever his words are more clear than my own.

And now back to Steinbeck:

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers.  I remember where a toad might live and what time birds awaken in the summer - and what trees and seasons smelled like - how people looked and walked ...

This is a whole new ballgame.  In two additional sentences we find out a lot through the Setting. 

First of all, this is a place of childhood wonder.  Toads.  Trees.  Not just flowers, but secret flowers.  Awakening birds.  Grasses.  Seasons and their smells.  And people, the way they looked and walked.  Our narrator liked, maybe loved this place.

More subtle, we are invited to like this place as well.  After just four sentences, I wanted to know what kind of story would be set in this Salinas.  I wanted to go there.  I wanted to touch those grasses, hold that toad, smell those secret flowers.

Lastly, and not so subtley, Steinbeck invites us to use our senses.  Sights. Smells. Sounds.

A tone is being masterfully set, and we have four hundred plus pages to go.

Let's move away from Steinbeck for a bit and re-ask our basic question.  What the heck is this thing called Setting?  So far it is Description, and it'sTone.  It is the backdrop against which a tale is to be told. Truth is though, I'm getting a feeling it might be even more.

Forgive me a moment to play Devil's advocate, but is Setting necessary?  The kneejerk response is, "You bet it is, Buster.  Without Setting, the reader doesn't have the necessary details to connect to the story."  A reasonable response, but  I wonder.  Can literature, exquisite literature, be so well executed that it transcends Setting?  Such as, could Harper Lee's wonderful tale of  nobility and prejudice, be set in someplace other than the South at the time of the Depression and still affect us so powerfully? 

Again, we might be tempted to give the automatic response of "Hell No!!!", but then again I wonder.  Every year, in my home town, Shakespeare is performed with diverse Settings that differ from the original.  I am still enthralled with the words, the drama, regardless of the frame they are set in.  It might be argued that even these have Setting, just different ones.  And that's true.

I'm going to quit here, leaving a ton of unanswered questions.  I haven't even really answered the initial question of what Setting is yet, but I think we're a little closer.  It appears I will have to touch on this subject again.  What I'm hoping for are responses that will allow clearer minds than mine to chime in, tell me their take on Setting.  I would even invite someone letting me know that I'm full of beans.

I'll leave you with a quote from Ron Rozelle:

Good writing is not entirely dependent upon Setting.  And bad writing sometimes is.


  1. I slushed a short story recently that the author claimed could be set "anywhere, at any time." The claim wasn't true, but it was an interesting experiment--the setting was well described but could have happened in a wide variety of places.

    However, in general I think you need to have a bare minimum of setting, enough suggestive details that your reader doesn't notice that anything is missing. That minimum changes based on genre and subjenre and even style, too. I can't imagine a high-fantasy novel without a strong setting; they're often over-strong, and I skip paragraphs and paragraphs of world-building. And a cozy set in a quaint English village better by quaint, dang it, or we won't believe that the little old lady has extrapolated all kinds of life lessons on murder from its quaint characters.

    But mostly? The story itself doesn't need a specific location. It doesn't matter *where* Cinderella is set, as long as it meets certain basic requirements. It's not the story that requires setting but the readers--we read to escape, don't we? Why wouldn't we want to escape our current settings, as well as ourselves?

    1. I'm a big fan of Elmore Leonard who puts 'the bare minimum of Setting in place (he rarely even describes his characters appearance. Having said that, there are folks like George R R Martin who go nuts on Setting (remember the giant wall in Game of Thrones). He did such a perfect job of describing it, to this day I can close my eyes and see that bad boy.