Whenever I think of setting, I think of those stories that have pages and pages of description of a snowy landscape or an old house. And no one could express better how I feel about these stories than Grumpy Cat.
But before your inner Grumpy Cat takes over, let’s re-think why setting is important. In Nina Munteanu’s on-line article Important Tools of Setting in a Novel: Create Memorable Settings Using Time, Place and Circumstances, she argues that without setting “there is no story.” At first glance this is a bold statement. What about plot? Character? Theme? And yet in this succinct article, Munteanu explains why setting is so important, how it can be used to ground a scene, to advance the plot, to reflect a character’s mood. Setting keeps characters from simply being a group of talking heads amid a backdrop of nothing. Munteanu writes, “Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care.”
Setting is one of my least favorite aspects of a story, both as a writer and a reader. I’m a character-driven writer, which means I always think of characters first, then a plot for them and finally a setting. When it comes to setting I’d be perfectly happy naming the city the characters live in, describing a few of the city’s quirks and moving on. In other words, I’m tempted to ignore setting completely. (The only writer who can ignore setting completely is Raymond Carver, and sometimes after reading his work I want to say, “No, seriously, where the heck is this story taking place?”)
But setting is important, even for us character-driven writers. Maybe I should say, especially for us character-driven writers. I like writing dialogue; it’s one of my strengths. The downside to knowing our strengths as writers is that sometimes we lean too heavily on them. This means I often have scenes in my stories with people just sitting around talking. Remember what we said about not wanting your characters to be talking heads in a vacuum? That’s where setting comes in.
Here are a few examples where setting is utilized in a story to enhance character development or foreshadow events. The best part is, these authors utilized setting without excessive description. So if you’ve been hesitant to give setting a big role in your work (setting-phobic—that’s a word, right?) don’t panic. There’s a way to incorporate setting into your work without compromising your own aesthetic.
In her novel Hotel Du Lac, Anita Brookner uses setting to reflect the main character Edith’s moods and emotions and also to foreshadow future events. Edith is a romance writer who is staying at the Hotel du Lac in the off season after leaving her fiancée at the altar. From the very first page, Brookner uses the dreary setting of the off-season hotel and the autumnal landscape to reflect Edith’s mood. “From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of gray” (Brookner 7). Edith’s hotel room is “the colour of over-cooked veal: veal-coloured carpet and curtains, high, narrow bed with veal-coloured counterpane…” (9). Here the setting evokes Edith’s mood with an alarming comparison, veal being a word that carries an emotional connotation. The setting lends the scene a sense of hopelessness, which is exactly how Edith feels at this hotel she’s been exiled to.
Brookner also uses setting to foreshadow future events. Edith eventually befriends several guests at the hotel, including Mr. Neville, a well-off male guest who proposes marriage to Edith towards the end of her stay. It is not a romantic proposal, but it would allow Edith to regain her place in respectful society. Mr. Neville makes it clear he will never love Edith, will in fact seek “love” with other women. Edith eventually accepts his proposal, although the reader knows that a person as romantic as Edith (she’s a romance writer, remember) will surely be unhappy with this kind of arrangement, as evidenced by the fact that Edith left her fiancée (her stable and secure fiancée) at the altar.
Munteanu writes that weather can be used to “convey[s] the mood and tone of both story and character.” Brookner uses setting for this exact purpose after Edith accepts Mr. Neville’s proposal:
Now the mist was coming down again, with the dusk,
blurring the street lamps, veiling the everyday
sounds. …and a chill spread from the untenanted lake
behind them. (170)
That night Edith writes a letter to her former lover, letting him know her decision to marry Mr. Neville. She wakes early on her last morning and as she heads to the front desk to mail her letter, she sees Mr. Neville leaving the bedroom of another woman. Here the setting directly impacts the plot; if the story’s setting had not been a hotel, Edith would never have learned that on the night Mr. Neville proposed to her, he spent the night with someone else. It’s as if the hotel, the very setting where Edith has been exiled to for her poor behavior regarding her jilted fiancée, has decided to reveal Mr. Neville’s poor character to her.
Kate Walbert’s short story “M&M World” also uses setting to develop her main character. Walbert’s story is about Ginny, a newly divorced mother who takes her daughters to M&M World in Times Square. Ginny had told the girls they would go in the spring, which on the surface, seems rather arbitrary. But when her daughter Olivia tells her that it’s spring now, and they should go, Ginny thinks: “She had said ‘spring.’ This she remembered, and it was spring, or almost. Spring enough. Spring advancing, the trees newly budded, the air peppery.” (Walbert 281)
In Walbert’s hands, spring encompasses more than just the season, though. Spring is considered a time of rebirth, the season of light and growth after the darkness of winter. Ginny’s marriage fell apart in the winter months, and there’s the sense in the story that spring will also be a time of personal growth for her and her daughters. She thinks of all the things she should buy now that it’s spring:
…a new coat, an elegant one like those she’s
seen on other mothers, something stylish to go with the
other stylish clothes she means to buy, and the
boots, the right boots, not just the galoshes she’s
slipped on every morning all winter; it’s spring
now, isn’t it? (285)
The idea of spring has inspired a change in Ginny. The galoshes she referenced appear a few pages later as Ginny flashes back to the moment her husband told her that he was moving out. “It made her crazy to look at him and so she stared at her feet, at her ubiquitous galoshes.” (289) She has been wearing these boots all winter, and she has never liked them. The idea that she will replace them seems hopeful, much like the season of spring itself. Walbert doesn’t have to come out and tell us that Ginny is in a time of transition; the setting itself does some of the heavy lifting for us.
Besides the macro setting of spring, there are two distinct micro settings in Walbert’s story: the chaos of M&M World juxtaposed with the quiet boat trip in Chile that Ginny and her ex-husband took many years ago. The immediate setting of M&M World is loud and crowded, so crowded in fact that one of Ginny’s daughters wanders off and is lost for a few minutes. The sensory and emotional overload of this scene is contrasted with the peaceful whale-watching boat trip Ginny and her ex took back before they were parents. On the trip, Ginny ended up being the only tourist to see the whale. She was so stunned by its sudden appearance and the stillness of its eyes that she didn’t call over her ex-husband. The peace and stillness of that scene, the whale suddenly disappearing, is a perfect contrast to the chaos of M&M World when her youngest daughter disappears. These two juxtaposed settings also capture Ginny’s turbulent mindset. She’s coming into her own as a single mother, but she’s also still struggling with the chaos of her new life, of balancing working outside the home with parenting.
Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler also uses setting to further character development, but she uses it in a slightly different way than Walbert. Tyler uses what her main character Delia notices about her setting as a window into her hopes and desires.
In Tyler’s novel, Baltimore resident and married mother of three, Delia Grinstead, wanders away during a family beach vacation. After she and her husband have a spat, she goes for a walk on the beach to calm down. On her walk she notices all the ways that the beach has changed since she was a child, back when she would visit there with her father. Her father is now dead and the marshland where they would fly homemade kites is now a condominium complex. The urge to return to her family takes hold with these memories.
…[she] spotted her family’s green-and-white umbrella
and her children on their blanket just beyond. From
here it didn’t seem that anyone was speaking, for
the children faced the horizon and Sam was studying
his watch. (Tyler 76)
Seeing them at a distance makes Delia realize that her children and her husband aren’t looking for her. In fact, they haven’t even noticed that she is gone. Delia returns to their vacation cottage where she runs into a workman who is packing up his RV after fixing the leaky roof. He invites Delia inside to look around the van, and she has a strong reaction when she steps inside, a reaction rooted in the new feeling she can’t shake, the feeling that her family doesn’t need her anymore.
The things that she loves and notices about the RV are all the things that are different from her home in Baltimore, like that the kitchen is “a model of miniaturization” (79). Delia notices (and is enchanted by) the small kitchen because this is not the kind of kitchen where a woman would be expected to prepare three square meals a day for an ungrateful family. This is the kind of kitchen a single person, a carefree person who is not tied to anyone or anything, would use. The things in the van that Delia zeroes in on reveal her desires and set the stage for what happens next, when she asks the workman for a ride in his RV, which ultimately leads to her starting a new life in a small town called Bay Borough.
Tyler peels back the layers that make up Delia when we glimpse Bay Borough through her eyes. After being in town for less than a day, Delia decides she feels at home there.
Already the small town held pockets of familiar
sights… She took a right at the corner, and the green
square in the distance seemed as comfortable, as well
known and faintly boring, as if she had spent her
childhood at the foot of Mr. Bay’s fringed chair.(93)
The fact that Delia tries to transform her new surroundings into a setting that is old and familiar reveals who Delia really is. Here is a woman who married at nineteen, became a mother at twenty, and has never once lived anywhere but her childhood home. So the reader is expecting Delia to absorb all the differences of her new town, to be delighted by how unlike Bay Borough is from Baltimore. However, the fact that Delia tries to immediately bond with her new setting, finding comfort in the unfamiliar, allows the reader to accept Delia more fully than if she had been the kind of woman who abandoned her family and started anew in a big city where she could be as selfish and anonymous as she wanted. Even though she felt suffocated by her old life, Delia still recognizes the comfort of the familiar, the importance of having a place in the world. And Tyler never has to come out and tell us this, thanks to her careful use of setting.
A few weeks later, after Delia’s older sister Eliza tracks her down in Bay Borough and tries to convince Delia to return home, the town of bay Borough suddenly looks different to Delia.
…and this part of town, which she had not seen since
the afternoon she arrived, now looked completely
different to her. It looked out of date, somehow. The
buildings were so faded they seemed not colored but
hand tinted, like an antique photograph. (120)
This washed out setting, the details that Delia notices about the town she has immersed herself in after only a few weeks, act as a mirror for Delia’s emotions after her disastrous meeting with Eliza. She suddenly sees the town the way Eliza must have—dilapidated and old. She has spent many nights envisioning a reunion with her family, imaging how impressed they will be when they see her with her new job in her new town. But Eliza didn’t seem impressed with Delia‘s life. Back in Baltimore, Delia often let her family dictate her role in their lives, which usually left her feeling superfluous and disenchanted. And so after Eliza leaves, it’s no surprise that Delia once again lets Eliza (and her family) change her perception of Bay Borough. No longer is the town square “comfortable” or “well-known.” Now it is suddenly outdated, like an “antique photograph.” This nicely parallels the way Delia often felt in Baltimore, how the comfortable and familiar can begin to feel shabby if examined too closely. Without these setting details, and without the benefit of seeing them through Delia’s eyes, the reader might have been less invested in her character arc.
So go ahead and embrace your inner setting-phile. Your characters will thank you.
Want more setting? Read Nina Munteanu’s article in its entirety: http://suite101.com/a/important-tools-of-setting-in-a-novel-a80471
Brookner, Anita. Hotel Du Lac. New York: Vintage Books–Random House, 1984.
Munteanu, Nina. “Important Tools of Setting in a Novel: Create Memorable Settings Using Time, Place and Circumstance.” Suite101.com. 25 November 2008. Web. 8 July 2012.
Tyler, Anne. Ladder of Years. New York: Ballantine Books-Random House, 1995.
Walbert, Kate. “M&M World.” The Best American Short Stories 2012. Ed. Tom Perrotta. New York: Mariner Books-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.