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Writing - Setting

( Originally Published 1922 )

Elements of Setting.— Setting in a story is the time, place, and conditions under which the action of the story occurs. Setting bears the same relation to the story that the sound drum bears to the Phonograph. In both cases, the lack of the developing feature of setting and sound drum will detract greatly from the final impression of the story and the music. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Relation of Setting to the Drama.—Dramas originally were given practically with no setting whatsoever. The old morality plays were very crude affairs indeed with regard to scenic effects and costuming of the actors. The spectator required a very sympathetic and enthusiastic nature to accept the plays as they were presented. In our modern dramas and musical comedies, however, everything is changed. The stage managers of the various companies vie with each other in setting their plays in veritable dreams of splendor. The characters are gowned as prince and princess born to the purple, while all settings of whatever kind are drawn with an eye to a certain effect. The settings are planned, above all else, to be always in tone with the theme of the story as well as the tone of each particular situation.

Setting Largely Contributory.—Through the proper use of setting, the short story and drama have been developed to the present distinguished standards. Some stories require only enough setting to give stability and to assist in the ultimate unity of impression desired. This is the case in stories based on character or incident. In such stories the setting must not interfere with the characters or the situations in which they become involved; and, even though a story be one of setting, the writer should be very careful that he does not introduce setting for setting's sake alone, but has rather a definite predetermined object in view in every place and condition described; otherwise, his story will lag and become wearisome.

Setting in a story should be given, in so far as possible, suggestively. Thus, the writer may say that the countenances of those present were blanched to a deadly white by the spectre which met their eyes.

Making Readers See Your Setting.—The more lifelike and concrete a setting can be made the more believable and credible will be the resulting story. The tales of old usually began with "Once upon a time." They might have occurred anywhere and at any time. This is perhaps one of the main reasons why such stories have an air of utter improbability. We do not know where they occurred. We have no idea of location. We are in a quandary as to under what conditions the action took place. Either through direct narrative, description, or by the speech of his characters, the writer should give definitely the setting of his story. In the following paragraph, the initial one in O. Henry's "The Whirligig of Life," the author thus briefly summarizes the setting:

"Justice of the Peace, Renaja Weddup, sat in the door of his office. Halfway of the zenith the Cumberland range rose blue-gray in the afternoon haze. A speckled hen swaggered down the main street of the `settlement,' cackling foolishly."

Emotion in the Setting.—Man is acted upon by the nature of his surroundings. Think to yourself of the effect that certain localities, through the passage of years, have grown to hold upon you. The sight of a certain far-away range of mountains will call up certain trains of thought. Certain impulses may suddenly spring up at the smell of a flower or the sound of a chime ringing. The impulses thus precipitated may influence radically the events of your life for a long time afterward.

Suppose, for instance, that you had lived for years in a certain hilly country—your home nestled in a pretty little valley which you had grown to love and regard as part of your very being. To continue with the hypothesis, you had always lived among friends who were congenial, sympathetic, and who understood your moods. Consider your feelings, then, if, by force of circumstances, you were suddenly snatched away from your sleepy litttle town among the hills and were drawn into the roaring maw of a huge city, where you saw no loving face, met no friend to speak a cheering word. Do you not think such a new life might have radical bearing on your thoughts and actions? Might you not in moments of desperation do things foreign to your past self?

This goes to show the effect environment has on the individual. How strong a hold it has gained upon an individual may be determined largely by the manner in which his nature reacts to environment. The nature of one's surroundings has a direct bearing, too, upon one's own feelings. When Old Sol smiles, man is very apt to do likewise. When gloom and chill settle over the earth, people are very apt to reflect nature's new tone.

Emotional Contrast in Setting—Certain settings are often used as a means of bringing out by contrast an opposite feeling or condition in the character. Thus, a character may be under strain of poignant grief. He may be drinking the dregs of utter despondency. To emphasize this character's feelings, the writer may describe the landscape and nature's various manifestations as being peaceful and tranquil. The same holds true for the opposite. Man may be happy and content, while all around him the elements roar forth their anger.

Setting as Determining the Incidents.—Setting includes all the elements of a person's environment, all the elements of nature, of social and occupational life, business, professional, and so forth. Hence, according as a person's relation to a certain condition of setting is accentuated, so is the story determined by the setting. If I am employed in, say, a telegraph office, my actions, the people whom I meet, the doings of the day, the thoughts that come to me, are largely predetermined by the very limitations of the occupation in which I am engaged.

Stevenson says regarding the influence of setting on incident:

There are, so far as I know, three ways, and three ways only, of writing a story. You may take a plot, and fit characters to it, or you may take a character and choose incidents and situations to develop it, or lastly you may take a certain atmosphere and get action and persons to express and realize it. I'll give you an example in "The Merry Men." There I began with the feeling of one of those islands on the west coast of Scotland, and I gradually developed the story to express the sentiment with which the coast affected me.

One thing in life calls for another; there 4 a fitness in events and places. The sight of a pleasant arbor puts it in our minds to sit in it. One place suggests work, another idleness, a third early rising and rambles in the dew. The effect of night, of any flowing water, of the peep of day, of ships, of the open ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous desires and pleasures. Something we feel should happen we know not what, yet we proceed in quest of it. And many of the happiest hours of life fleet by us in the vain attendance on the genius of the place and moment. It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low rocks that reach into deep soundings, particularly torture and delight me. Something must have happened in such places, and perhaps, ages back, to members of my race; and when I was a child I tried in vain to invent appropriate games for them, as I still try, just as vainly, to fit them with the proper story. Some places speak distinctly. Certain dark gardens cry aloud for murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck. Other spots again seem to abide their destiny, suggestive and impenetrable.

Influence of Setting on Character.—Man, as has already been announced, is a creature of his environment. His outlook on life very likely will be colored by the setting in which he is placed. Zola, the French novelist, for instance, was reprimanded by Brunetière, a French critic, for describing one of his characters as moved by the various colors mirrored in a pool of water before his house. The critic did not think is was lifelike to have a man influenced by such a trivial circumstance, but Zola and his contemporaries were more acute analyzers of the effect setting has on character.

The business in which we are engaged, the places we visit, the things we have, all are extremely vital in determining our course of action in life. Change one and you vary the individual for a day; change them all and your personage will experience an entirely different outlook upon life. For instance, if a man is a minister, he may, by mere nature of his occupation and by no sense of morality inherent in him, be expected to act differently under certain circumstances than would a person of some other profession placed under like conditions.

The Part the Weather Plays in a Story. The writer will recall what a vast number of stories of adventure or incident have been founded on some phase of weather—upon a thunder-shower—a cyclone—a snow-storm of the Dakota type —a sand-storm of the desert. A typical instance of this sort is Conrad's story of the sea, "The Typhoon." If the writer has sufficient command of words to portray the sounds of the elements in distress, he has at his beck and call a very effective means of entertainment. Stories of storms or of weather contain unlimited possibilities.

Local Color.—Artists especially noted for the distinct tincture of local color that their stories contain are: Bret Harte and Hamlin Garland, whose stories portray the life and manners of the West and Middle West; Cable, whose stories are of the intimate southland; Mary Wilkins Freeman, whose characters portray the tone and atmosphere of quaint New England life, and so on. The stories of these and other writers are distinguished because of the local color which they introduce into their stories. They give the tone, the atmosphere, the concentrated meaning of the locality of which they write. Their stories portray effectively and unmistakably the domestic tones and distinguishing features of these localities. All details of setting are selected in such a manner as to bring out the spirit and the pervading atmosphere of the place, while all details which do not assist in the unity of impression are rigidly suppressed.

Writing: Setting & Descriptions
Writing Fiction - Setting


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