How To Achieve Effective Setting
By Paul Saevig


Setting is, with plot and character, the most obvious element of a story. It’s the background, and where the story takes place. Except for a few Nabokovian examples, story cannot exist without setting. And setting can have the quality of not seeming to contribute much, yet actually making or breaking the story.

Think of Moby Dick or Lord Jim without the seven seas. Think of The Heart of Darkness without the Congo. Sometimes setting can seem to be the most important element of a story.

In my story, The Good Gangster, available on this site, I try to create a setting that’s dangerous and inhospitable. This is not difficult to do for anyone who’s ever been through South Central Los Angeles at night. Yet I don’t live there, and I’ve only been through a few times. I was not like Dickens writing about London. I had to do it through memory and imagination.

To show as many tableaux as I could of South Central life, I made The Good Gangster a chase. My hero, Fat Bear, is running through block after block of nightscape. In this sense, I made the setting necessary to the story. So did Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad in the examples cited above.

An example of a novel where setting is unimportant would be, I suppose, Catcher In the Rye. The narrator is telling his tale from a psychiatric hospital that could be anywhere, and the action could take place at an American prep school anywhere, too. This novel relies on other elements, mainly characterization, for its power.

Another way to use setting profitably is to make it distinctive. My story called The Pharmacist, available in this site, involves much of the same South Central location as The Good Gangster, but The Pharmacist has the hook of a middle-aged Caucasian professional man seeing South Central for his own eyes, for the first time. He sees the retail and wholesale businesses on the street in a wholly different way from the black youngsters he makes friends with. For example, he can’t at first figure out what the storefront churches are.

As we suggested with Moby Dick, Lord Jim, and The Heart of Darkness, setting can be indispensable to a story. This is because the same story could not happen anywhere else. Writing your story this way is an extreme version of making setting part of your story. I tried to accomplish this in my story Red Darts, available in this site. I set out to tell a simple story about a simple boxer and his fate. This story took place in areas of Los Angeles not noted for their sophistication and elegance. I hope the roughness and crudeness of street life there contribute to my story. It could not have been told in Beverly Hills. I might have told it in Brixton, but not in Mayfair.

I believe good setting is skillful arrangement and insertion of powerful details. Obviously, you can’t write, “Fred walked down a cluttered, pot-holed lane lined with arrogant crowds and covered with fresh horse dung.” It’s awkward and it’s too obvious. But if the lane is to be an important feature of the story, you might work these details in subtlely throughout the story. Remember, you don’t have to front-load your story: you don’t have to apply all your descriptions and adjectives in the beginning – they can be parceled out through the whole story.

If you want your story to look professional rather than amateurish, follow the “Less is more” rule in building your setting. “Fred walked down a pot-holed lane, trying to avoid the horse dung at his feet.”

There is also something called emotional setting, which means the emotional environment of the characters as the action takes place. It’s also called the atmosphere. This is a more complex term than setting, and one that will be taken up later in this instructional series.

For now, we know that:

1. Setting is the background, where the story takes place.
2. Setting can be more or less prominent, according to the author’s choice.
3. Setting can be distinctive, e.g., “the window” versus “the fly-specked window”.
4. Effectiveness of setting depends upon skillfulness of arrangement and powerful details.
5. When applying details, “Less is more” rule applies.

Copyright Paul Saevig 2001

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