On Wednesdays, we write.
Last time I wrote about Setting I circled around the idea that I am best suited to using Setting as a device to influence the tone of a story. I think it’s important to take a step back from that and clarify that I recognize that Setting can also be the plot driver for a novel. I am going to center on Setting as where in this post, not because when is irrelevant, but because I think time as Setting deserves an entry of its own.
I have to confess that I love it when a book tells me from the start that we are here and by so resolutely being here, this story will guarantee a journey that is broad and deep and grounded in the place from where we start. Movement comes in so many forms and those of us who love reading often know this better than most, as we have sat unmoving for hours on some of our best adventures.
Dickens comes to mind as a master of this craft (both because he is a master of this craft and because I’m currently immersed in Christine Trent’s Lady of Ashes and there is all kinds of Charlie D influence showing up in it). In Oliver Twist, we start in a workhouse, in Hard Times, a school room. Each of these examples introduces the where or the when in the first few sentences, forcing the reader to exist on the terms of the Author, because a story is about to take place and where it takes place will hint toward much of the what and the why.
And modern literature is not ignorant of these mechanics. Dennis Lehane puts us on Shutter Island and we walk the pavement of Mystic River from the first sentence. These places are the only reason these stories can happen in the ways that they happen. I have to wonder at the exercise of starting a book in such a clear state, where the writer can see the landscape and scrape her own knuckles against the hardtop. She drops us at street level and whirls the lens so we can breath the air and wonder at the sounds of movement or stillness. This way, I have been had over and over again by a book from its outset. I am shown the place and suddenly I know somewhere more than I did just a moment before. Sold.
The next question is asked, “Who lives here?” and the writer smiles wryly at the reader, as if about to reveal a truth both obvious and taboo. We readers love this — the wink, the nod, and the subletted plot from which we watch the goings on. So then the necessary work of any writer working with Setting as the plot driver, must be understanding how this place will influence every scene.
This means that Setting can be the tension (tonal influence, hey!) or it can be the reason a scene takes place at all. What I mean by this is that the discovery of the hallway in House of Leaves is one of the strongest drivers for the exploration of darkness, of space and expansiveness and the all encompassing fear and loneliness that we readers find ourselves in when everything goes black. The house doles out the plot points like a carnie standing in front of a haunted house ride. When Setting takes the wheel, the cast of the story is just as beholden as the reader to the things that go bump in the book. Maybe this is why Setting is such a strong tool in writing horror, sci-fi and fantasy. The protagonist has the same constrained control as the reader over what happens next (though a fun protagonist may not accept it as well).
In this way, a Setting-driven story can use place as a replacement for many of the common tropes used to move plot. Setting can be an antagonist (as in the example above), but also a mentor or a cheerleader. Think of the role that the traditional American South plays in Gone with the Wind — what better cheerleader than an entire cultural identity built around place to engage and fortify a protagonist such as Scarlett O’Hara?
I would like to play with a writing exercise wherein I apply Setting in each of these plot roles to better understand how the where of it all challenges, strengthens and expands the protagonist through the story. I have a nagging feeling I might find myself with more thinky thoughts about tone after doing it, but I will leave that mental cyclone for another day.
Next time, let’s talk time…