Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tutor Tuesday - Settings

Whether you are creating your own settings while writing fiction or analyzing settings while writing non-fiction, this story element is an extremely important part of the equation.

Let's look at non-fiction first. You have to analyze a story for an essay and you decide to look at the settings of your piece. Some stories have more pronounced settings than others. In some books, the setting is more of a subtle background, the stage on which the actors play, while in others, the setting is almost a character in and of itself.

Say you are asked to write a literary analysis of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some questions you may want to consider when analyzing the setting of this book are:

* What is the time period? Would this story have worked better set in a different time?
* What is the location? Would the story have worked better elsewhere? Are several locations used in the story? Do they work? Would a specific scene have worked better in another setting? If all the scenes are set in the same location, would the story have worked better set in several different locations?
* What season is the story set in? If it is set in winter, would it be better set in summer? Does the season echo what is happening in the story? (example: Do the love scenes occur in the summer while the trial occurs in the winter, or vice versa?)
* What time of day is it when important events in the story take place? Do the sinister things happen at night while the happy things happen during the day? Why do you think this is?

While the setting may seem like a simple part of the story, it can actually have a huge impact on what is going on. The events detailed in The Scarlet Letter either wouldn't have happened or would have happened in a very different way with a very different outcome if the story had been set someplace like the farthest frontier outpost or an indian village or in the southern states...even during the same time period.

The setting of a story, not just the physical location but everything about it (time of day, season, outside (forest or beach) or inside (and what type of building if inside)) can greatly impact the success of a story. Thoroughly exploring this literary tool can be a great start to your literary analysis.

For fiction, you can ask yourself these same questions as you are creating your settings. Are you creating the best setting for your story? Would it work better somewhere or some time else? Are you giving enough detail for the reader to see the setting without going overboard?

This one can be important. In the first draft of my first novel I described my character pulling up to her home and spent 4 PAGES describing in minute detail every nook and cranny of the house. And I did that several times throughout the book. I was convinced if I didn't give the reader all that description, they wouldn't be able to see the location.

But you know, readers have great imaginations. Give them enough to get them grounded, to let them know what your world looks like, without drowning them in pages of description that they'll never read. I generally start skimming if there is more than a paragraph of description, no matter how beautifully written. Chances are, your readers will too :)

What is your opinion on settings? Do you like long, descriptive passages that describe every detail, or do you like to set things up in your own imagination? What is your favorite literary setting?

7 comments:

T C Mckee said...

Personally, I love description. But I've learned that in this world of "right now" we have to get to the point a little faster than we used to. I've found this rule especially important if you're writing YA. Kids are able to get to anything they want in an instant thanks to the internet, so we can't hold their attention as easily as before. I ended up erasing entire chapters because I was way to descriptive. But it sure made the story go a whole lot faster. Great question;)

Colene Murphy said...

Great tips! I never thought about setting so much in one of my novels. I just picked on of my favorite places and used it. Going to have to give it more thought when I get back to that one! Thanks!

Stephanie McGee said...

In my own writing I'm a very spare describer of the surroundings. But that's not to say I don't appreciate being shown what the backdrop looks like so the people don't become just talking heads.

One of my favorite uses of setting is in Jane Eyre when the tree is torn in two by lightning the next morning.

The Golden Eagle said...

I like giving the reader a basic framework--nothing too detailed, since that takes up time and plenty of readers get bored with a lot of description--but enough to get a general picture; like stating the effect of the light, where the objects are, but nothing terribly specific.

One of my favorite literary settings? Oh, I don't know . . . maybe Kenneth Oppel's Airborn.

Elana Johnson said...

I'm notoriously bad at setting. No one can ever figure out what's going on. Because of that, I'm forced to pay more attention to it as a writer. So I have as a reader too. And I like the shorter end. If it's a bedroom, I'm with you. Unless it's like a palace bedroom. In which case, I'm still with you. You know?

Shari said...

I prefer to use my imagination. I like to get to the action of the story.

Jan Markley said...

Good piece on setting! I loved The Scarlet Letter.