Wednesday, March 9, 2011

All set?

You guys' comments always make me smile. Thanks for the wonderful responses.

Today we're talking setting. For an example of what I think was a perfectly done setting, read Stephanie Perkins' ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS.

The perfect setting is relative, and varies from reader to reader and writer to writer. For me, the perfect setting is somewhere between 'just a backdrop' and 'an extra character'. My favourite settings walk a thin line between influencing and staying out of the story.


Setting is like the difference between a black and white movie and technicolor. Some black and white films were remastered to be in colour. It's the same film, but it's different.

A setting should be painted well enough that you see the colour. But it should not be so entangled with the story that it would be impossible to transpose the story to another place or another time.

Not having the setting too intertwined with the story helps to make it more universal. ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS takes place in Paris, but it could have happened anywhere. Take a few essentials- Anna being unable to understand the language, meeting a gorgeous boy who can, being afraid of cultural sterotypes- and you could lift ANNA right out of France and put her down in any non-English-speaking country. In fact, you could just as easily put her in an English speaking area with a thick accent or dialect (the Deep South, Yorkshire, parts of Africa).


Even though the story should be transposable, I like a setting that once in a while crosses into plot/character territory. Take HARRY POTTER, for example. There are several times that Harry finds himself in the wrong place at exactly the right time. He hears things he's not supposed to, gets accused of things, discovers Fluffy, trains an army. These things would not be possible if it weren't set in a big confusing castle with moving staircases and secret rooms.

What's the point of setting a book in Japan if there's nothing 'Japanese' in it? This can be something stereotypical, like going to an anime convention; or it can be something only someone living here might think of, like always laughing at the jokes first at comedies in the cinema, since it takes the non-natives longer to the read the joke in the sub-titles.

There are lots of books set in anywhere, USA. And it took me about 20 times watching one of my fave movies to finally hear something that confirmed it's location. There's nothing to say you can't do this, but I'm not a fan.


If your setting comes up ever 34.21 seconds, you may be overusing it. If a novel set in Japan spoke only of the fact that it was in Japan and the differences and similarities to the West, it would read like non-fiction. The closer an author gets to that point, the more he/she risks me getting fed up with the setting. The one exception is if it's a setting that I care about. For example, I might be more tolerant of an over-used Japan setting.

Another danger is mentioning the name of your setting too much. I say "Barbados" now much more than I did when I lived there. When you say schoolschoolschool, or FranceFranceFrance, or TokyoTokyoTokyo, it's like you've got something to prove to somebody. This is an important area to 'show not tell'. Remind us the character is in school with an annoying teacher, in France with macarons, in Tokyo with soba noodles.

Some science fiction, some fantasy, most historicals (and probably lots of other categories I can't call to mind right now) break these rules. For these authors and readers, the novel would not be possible without the setting. If you're writing one of these genres and/or extremely strong settings rock your world, then go for it.

But personally, the characters and the plot are more important to me. I don't think I'd have gotten through all 7 Harry Potters, regardless of the cool spells and creatures, if it wasn't for Harry, Hermione, Ron, Snape, Draco, Dumbledore, Dobby, etc etc.

What about you? How do you like settings? Just a pinch? Or drowning in it? Or somewhere in between?


Shallee said...

Thanks for this post! I think setting is something that is often ignored, or at minimized in stories. I tend to give it quite a bit of weight, because it can really strengthen the story. I agree with you that even in a completely unique setting (like Hogwarts, for example), you need to make it relatable to your audience.

Marsha Sigman said...

It depends on the book. Harry Potter would not be the same without his world and I think Hogwarts was as much a character as anyone. I loved it. But honestly I don't usually care that much for setting or background. It's an afterthought for me when I write (working on that) and it's not something I tend to think about when I read.

jbchicoine said...

I never really thought about setting in the light you have presented it. Interesting to ponder...hmmm...

My novels don't hinge on specific settings, ie, city or country, but certain aspects of the place are important to the development of the story. For instance, that it takes place in a coastal town, or on a lake colors the plot quite a bit, though I suppose the occupations of my characters could be adjusted to fit a mountain or desert location without impinging on the overall theme. Families function (or fail to function) in both worlds.

On the flipside, although an uncharted/unhinabited island could be located in any ocean, it would present a different set of survival issues than one would find on an island with even a small population..., I guess I'm somewhere in between :)

E.J. Wesley said...

I think it can all work if applied properly. Granted, most of the books I've REALLY enjoyed have strong settings, but I'm pretty sure that's coincidence as I've enjoyed many that didn't give a ton of spotlight to the setting.

I say author's choice! :0)


Judit said...

I loved your article and especially the example you used :) Anna and the French Kiss is one of my favorite books! I think the same ability, or maybe gift of showing instead of telling has also Kristin Cashore. While reading your post I was telling myself: Yes, that's exactly what her books are about. If you haven't read them, you definitely should!