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Setting is one of the most vital parts of storytelling – so why is it so often neglected in favour of plot and character?
Setting should be much more than just a backdrop against which the story unfolds.
Whether it’s the time, weather or landscape, every part of your setting should inject your story with atmosphere and meaning.
The Writers’ Academy tutor Dr. Guy Mankowski discusses all aspects of setting.
Scroll down to read through Guy’s webinar transcript.
Alternatively, you can download it to your device in PDF format:
I’d like to start by welcoming you to this class on Setting, and by thanking Rebecca for her introduction. I should say a few words about my credentials regarding.
I started writing in 2010 and since then have had four novels published.
The setting is not just a backdrop behind the story
In creative writing the setting is often overlooked as a key component in the story. Seen as the less essential sibling after plot and character. But the setting is not just a backdrop behind the story- not just colour that allows the plot and the characters to be more textured. Often the setting is the site at which something can be resolved.
Let me make that clearer. A story is often a question which is being answered who killed that person? What has happened to make her feel that way? What has happened to him? If a story is a question then the setting is the site at which something can be resolved. Getting the setting right is therefore very important.
The setting of a story involves more than the weather
There is no reason why the author can’t express themselves even more in the setting than they could through the characters.
Many will be familiar with the idea of ‘pathetic fallacy’ from GCSE English studies.
In ‘pathetic fallacy’ the writer (in this context often it was Shakespeare) describes weather within a setting in a certain way, to add to the emotional context of the story. But the setting can take us further than that.
Establish the setting very early in the story
I can’t emphasise enough how important it is for the author to establish very early on in the story – as in the first couple of lines – exactly where the character is in the setting of the story. This allows the reader to be able to visually detail where the character is, and then we can follow what they are doing.
This might sound pretty straightforward to do, but there is real skill in establishing the layout of the scene precisely, so that the reader can follow a character throughout it. As an example, let’s take a look at the opening of Ian McEwan’s novel ‘Enduring Love’. He starts with these lines-
I often use the opening from this novel as a good example of establishing setting, when feeding back to my students. Here we have the main characters, where they are in relation to each other, and the layout of the scene. We even have a sense of the emotions being played out in this setting.
McEwan talks of a sense of idiocy, of a sense of happiness and then the convergence of the characters happens, and the plot truly begins.
An alternate history can also be offered in a setting.
The story can present a ‘what if’ scenario, to make the reader think about the world they live in. Sometimes aspects of the real world can be evoked without their being any mention of specifics. The ‘Just William’ books written by Richman Crompton in the 1920’s, for instance, were set in a fictional idyllic English country village. In ‘Growing Up With Just William’ William’s so-called biographer Margory Disher suggests that the William stories are set somewhere around Bromley in Kent.
A sign in a Thomas Henry illustration in the short story ‘William Does His Bit’ sets the action just north of London. Regardless of such exactitudes, Crompton’s rather Edenic version of England is nestled somewhere in the deep south, with the stories boundaries being porous enough to not feel restrictive. Although they are actually as inescapable for our protagonist as the village in the late 60’s series ‘The Prisoner’.
But in garnering our affections for William, during his misadventures, Crompton is also garnering the reader’s affections for a timeless England.
Setting here is evoking a feeling in the reader that Crompton wants them to have. This then makes people love the stories even more, and so is very important.
As we know, stories can be set in the real world – or we can enhance certain aspects of the real world in the setting to help the author assert the point they want to make.
JG Billard’s High Rise
For instance, JG Ballard’s novel ‘High Rise’ concerned a luxury tower block in which inhabitants lived with the poorest on bottom floors and with the richer inhabitants higher up the building. In ‘High Rise’ the tower block in which the events take place goes from being a pristine, utopian place to being run-down and chaotic, therefore serving as a backdrop to characters who undergo the same emotional journey. At various points in the story the building is described in different ways. This allowed Ballard to assert the point he wanted to make about how human behaviour changes, if people have too much proximity to one another, and limited resources.
Such was Ballard’s insightful use of layout in the novel that ‘High Rise’ was even argued by some critics to have a Freudian element to its three main characters.
‘Withnail and I’ director Bruce Robinson considered the novel in terms of the building as an organism going insane. Robinson even went on to break the building down into component parts that he felt represented different parts of the psyche!
Personifying the setting
Ballard had therefore personified the building in ‘High Rise’, making it a character of itself. We can see evidence of this in the story, when he describes the building as being-‘determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon the [inhabitants].’ Here, the author went far beyond using the setting just as a backdrop for the characters, or giving it a certain feel, as Richmal Crompton did.
In my own work I have been very much influenced by Ballard’s approach. Not least the way in which he showed that elements of the setting can have symbolic power, which serves to enrich the story.
When writing my first novel, ‘The Intimates’, I was drawn to the symbolic way Ballard would use frequently empty swimming pools in his stories, in a manner which seemed significant. Take this quote, for instance, from Ballard’s 2008 novel ‘Miracles Of Life’. In it, he wrote:
As a child brought up in Shanghai, Ballard encountered first-hand drained swimming pools in the gardens of English expatriates as a child, after the invasion of the Japanese in 1937. He once said:
Using setting to give writing a historical backdrop
By using an empty swimming pool in a grand English home in the opening scene of my debut novel, I was aware that I was drawing on collective imagery of English power draining away, using the setting to give writing a historical backdrop. The opening scene of ‘The Intimates’ describes a pool that had ‘long been drained of any water’. By starting with this image straight away I therefore had an emotional backdrop for my plot- a sense of something having been emptied and drained. This gave me a canvas on which to explore my characters feelings in a way that set up my story.
Sometimes it is the words used to describe a setting that offer resonance, rather than the their physical presence in a story.
For instance, in Paul Auster’s novel Moon Palace, a young man named Marco Fogg has recently lost his beloved uncle. Trying to come to terms with his this, Fogg looks out of his window, through a gap between two buildings. He writes:
Here, Auster (who is big on using the significance of coincidence in his stories) uses the setting of a Chinese restaurant called Moon Palace, to draw from the mystical connotations of the word ‘moon’. Thereby offering insights into his character’s emotional state with meaningful word choice.
Later in the novel, having been forced into homelessness by poverty, Fogg comes to think of the Moon Palace again whilst in a fevered state. He writes:
So here, twisted by delirium, Auster has Fogg interpret the name of this setting in a way that now offers him a deep insight into his current condition. The setting here is being used as a figurative metaphor.
That’s about as deep as I want to go into it today- but you will soon have the opportunity to ask me any questions about setting that you’d like answered. Some students have asked me to offer some tips on making sure the setting of a story is strong.
I think my most important tip is: Establish right away exactly where your character is in the scene.
You can open with a line about how your character is feeling, or you can even quickly describe the run-up of events leading to the story that is about to start before you specify where your character is in the scene. But if we want the reader to be able to visualise the story as it progresses then they need to know where the character is within the setting, right from the start.
This also requires crafting the prose so we have a sense of the whole layout of the scene. For instance, consider these opening lines-
‘Angelene entered the bar, and saw at the far end a spare stool, between two men. Cautious, she took her place on it, and turned back to face the entrance.’
From this we know the gender of the character, her name, where she is in the scene and we also have some sense of the layout of the scene. We even have a sense of how she feels and we know she is indoors! All this is important. Writers often overlook these details, making it very hard for the reader to be able to picture what is happening, as they haven’t established the setting clearly right away.
I think another good tip to get you going with this is for you to describe a real life setting. Sit in a café and, as good exercise for writing in the first person, describe the setting in terms of how you experienced it when you first entered that environment. Include any detail that allows the reader to fully picture that exact scene in their mind.
If you want to try and come up with evocative settings for your story try to think of a place that has made a real impression on you. A scene in which something important to you happened. A place which makes certain thoughts or feelings come alive for you. I suggest that when you can, go there and write about it, describing what your experience of it is. What do you see first? What jumps out about it?
A lot of authors seem to fall into the mistake of talking about a scene as if it is ‘normal’ as if what is going on there is ‘everyday’ or ‘expected’. But what does that mean?
Telling any story is a great way for the author to show a unique take on the world. No two authors will describe it the ‘normal’ or the ‘everyday’ the same.