Sunday, July 18, 2010

setting: what's the point????

I'm working on a new story right now. (Yes, in the midst of reformatting my play--except that I've finally found a format I can live with, so I'm finally making some headway.) It's set in Ma'ale Adumim, the town in which I used to live when I was living in Israel. The interesting thing is how easy it is to recall many of the finer details of the place, down to the moment where certain hills begin, the exact spacing of certain fruit trees in certain gardens, the courtyards and the flowers lining the pathways.
I have this insane desire to take my subject and draw the setting in concentric circles around the action, almost so that it echoes outward.The problem I'm currently facing is the subject itself, which is difficult to separate from the setting. I have to wonder if perhaps the setting is what's causing the tension and if I were to take the characters out of the setting, would the conflict remain? I know the answer to this question. Maybe that's why this story needs to be written.
When I used to write in high school and college, it took a lot for me to focus on setting. It wasn't until I merged my experiences as a teacher of literature and writing with my experiences as a writer, did I realize the huge importance of setting. (I should add in that the problem with being a writer, a teacher and an avid reader is that it's hard to just sit down and enjoy a novel without little pop-ups entering my head with "oh, I like how this author did that!" or "that fact has obviously not been verified!" or "nice metaphor! I have to share this with someone!") I've taught my former students that yes, we need to know where and when a story occurs. It grounds us, helps us understand the characters a bit more, gives us greater insight into plot development, etc. Not knowing that Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (one of my all-time favorite books to teach) takes place during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s as the Joads travel westwards to California would be devastating to the plot. We wouldn't be able to place the story and we certainly wouldn't be able to understand the prevailing mood. In short stories, the setting sets the tone for that one major conflict that may be present. It's also important to note that pulling the characters from one setting and depositing them in another would completely change the story. I keep thinking of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and how exciting it would be to stick the protagonist into any of Poe's stories....
Okay, enough. So my point is that setting is pretty important. For me, I just never realized the huge weight that we place on what seems like such a minor detail. I remember being a student in Mr. Youngman's "Short Stories and Essays" course and forgetting to list the setting on one of my assignments and thinking that it really wasn't a big deal. Yeah, well guess what...
In this particular story that I'm writing, the setting is almost as important as the characters because of the way it impacts on the characters and causes their reactions to be what they are. I think that this story, set anywhere else, would fail to have the same impact.

1 comment:

  1. Setting IS one of my characters. In fantsy and science fiction, it is crucial to consider it so. But in other writing, it is still important. I like to use setting to give voice to things that can't be told. It's another character not just to flavor the story, but to help pace the tension and hint at things.

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be kind.