Unit 4: Setting
“…place is a definer and a confiner of what I'm doing… It saves me. Why, you couldn't write a story that happened nowhere.” — Eudora Welty
Click below to watch this unit's introductory video and don't forget this is your course to be done your way. Take as long as you like on screens, return to activities later if you're not ready, and don't rush your imagination.
A love of home, or passion for travel. The tranquillity of nature, or excitement of the city. A fascination with the past, or obsession with the future. The search to belong, or the need to flee. Fear of the dark. The arctic waste. The swamp. The summit. The sea. The slums. The catacombs. The palace. The rocking chair. The road.
Setting often fuels the drive to write. Most writers will profess a profound relation to place and time, whether as patriot, refugee, homebody, adventurer, or time traveller; and writers will tell you that creating the sensuous particularity of a place and period is crucial to writing. Setting is not merely scenery against which the significant takes place; it is part and parcel of the significant; it is heritage and culture, identity and exile, and the writer's choice of detail directs our understanding and experience.
Yet there's a resistance and even a measure of boredom that greets the subject of setting. The at-times tedious and often sentimental descriptions of nature that we read in school can serve as a reproach for not paying more attention to the wonders of nature. In daily life we take our surroundings ninety percent for granted. Yet we're told to write about the world we know. So we ask, What's the big deal? Isn't it everybody's world? Well, no.
Where are we?
This can be a physical or emotional question. The location of a story is crucial not only to plot, but also character and emotion — you can choose how readers experience a setting and what they understand about your persona's emotions towards that place. For example, read this extract from Deborah Tall's story “Here”:
Like so many Americans raised in suburbia, I have never really belonged to an American landscape… The land's dull tidiness was hard to escape, except in the brief adventures of childhood when I could crawl beneath a bush or clothe myself in a willow tree. Before long, tall enough to look out the kitchen window, I saw the tree tamed by perspective, the bush that could be hurdled, my yard effectively mimicked all up and down the block: one house, two trees, one house, two trees, all the way to the vanishing point.
In rejecting the suburban landscape as her rightful home, Tall creates its oppressive tidiness for us, its suggestive or even symbolic importance to her sense of the vanishing point. Though the description is of a deliberately static scene, the forceful verbs — escape, crawl, clothe, tame, hurdle, mimic — carry the energy of her desire to be gone from it. And readers can connect with the pictures and emotions she evokes in many ways: the image of suburbia itself, the childhood desire to hide, the changing perspective as she grows, the need for independence, and a sense of exile felt by many writers.
Let's take a closer look at The Significance of Setting