Continuing our lessons on writing a short story, , the locale where it takes place is known as the setting. Setting also implies location in time – the time of d;ay as well as the historic time, and even such matters as the weather, or the temperature in the room where the action takes place. You may think the setting is unimportant, but in successful stories where everything works together , it contributes a great deal. With a great writer like Hemingway,who had a wide choice of milieu for his stories – Spain, Africa, Michi8gan etc., it is easy to see why each story is set where it is.
As with all aspects, the setting may be basic to the original conception, or may be the result of deliberate choice. Almost every American writer has set at least one story in New York, yet each treated it differently. It mis a city about which one can generalise, and this makes the city useful and effective as a setting for a limitless variety of situations and themes. There is so much mobility in a big city that it makes an appropriate setting for any character’s rise or fall. Because there are more people of all social classes crowded together, it enables unusual encounters – an actress and a hobo; a playboy and a shopgirl. This also creates opportunities for depicting such themes as the injustices of social distinction, and extremes of poverty and wealth. There are so many comings and goings in a big city (even Tel Aviv) that the author can make virtually any plot plausible.
A big city setting is ideal for themes like being lonely in a crowd; veneration for the new; bustling immorality; people selling themselves for money or power; the city’s sense of busy futility. It can be used as a symbol of opportunity, freedom and success, and also the empty underside of these qualities.
You should choose a place you know intimately for your setting. Conrad used the sea; Pearl Buck – China; Faulkner – the South; Steinbeck the Monterey Peninsula; Doris Lessing – Rhodesia. They managed to create , from story to story, a world with connotations not just of the place itself, but their own individual perception of it.
Decide how the setting enhances your story, or can be made to do so. Don’t write paragraphs of mere description – many readers will skip them. But you can slant a description in such a way as to achieve an effect.
For instance, you could write two descriptions of the same room. In the first, emphasising the room in sunlight and picking out bright touches – a bowl of spring flowers, a bright rug etc. You prepare it as a setting for a romantic comedy or light-hearted story. You could write a description of the same room when night approaches, emphasising dark magogany furniture , a sinister dagger lying on the coffee table and the reader would be prepared for a tragedy.
By using a basic plot and changing the setting, you can create unlimited variations. Romeo and Juliet was set in Verona, Italy. With the same basic plot, West Side Story was set in New York. Two different stories – both successful.
Atmosphere is also an integral part of your setting. This is time, place and mood. It is almost a character, a motivating force. A wonderful “atmosphere” story is somerset Maugham’s “Rain”, where the inhibited Rev. Davidson reverses his asceticism when he succumbs to the combination of Sadie Thompson and the incessant rain. “Wuthering Heights” is another example which would not be memorable without the setting of the bleak English moors.
Establish your dominant atmospheric mood immediately – ” Spring was kicking up its heels…” Use sensory appeals of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. If you write of Winter, use more vivid words than ‘cold’. The lash of sleet against the window; the crack of freezing ice on the river ; the crunch of snow underfoot.
Your imagery should be graphic and original. Hong Kong – a pearl on black velvet; A canvas painted by a demented artist scattering color indiscriminately; an orchid on the brink of a volcano; blood on a white handkerchief.
Weave in specific details, interesting information, unknown facts. Be accurate and authentic – with proper names of flowers, trees, birds, animals. The setting must blend and integrate with plot, characterization, emotion and action.
In my next Blog. I’ll deal with creating characters.
My new novella “Searching for Sarah” is now available on Amazon, or contact me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org I enjoy your comments, and you can always ask me for help with a writing problem. Happy writing!