On Stories: Setting begins with Location, location, location.

In a previous post I talked about story as s kind of house.  Characters, I suggested, were like the people in the house, and sometimes perhaps the animals.  Plot, I said, was like the air they breathed that filled every space, invisibly, and was the medium through which all action and speech took place.  Plot is the one thing without which all will die. 

Setting I called the house itself, but I don’t want you to think in terms of a simple structure with all houses being more or less alike.  Rather, remember that houses are homes, filled up with all sorts of things.  For a story, it is best to build the setting (house) like you might build a home, and in so far as possible, make it an unique home in which the characters can live and move and breathe.  

Now, having said that, let me also say that the house and everything in it speaks of two parts of what I call setting.  1) there is location–the house itself, and 2) there are the props (like in a play or film)—the furniture and all that makes a house a home.

1) location:

Where would Psycho be without the Bates Motel?  Where would Scarlet be without Tara?  Think of the plays HOT L Baltimore or Steambath, but don’t think of them as modern plays with their minimalist sets.  Rather, think of them like the movies that paid attention to the details.  I have seen Hamlet performed on stage with virtually no sets at all and only two swords, a crown and several incidental props.  But in the film, Hamlet’s castle is detailed in period design to bring authenticity to the work.

The film industry has a saying:  Location, location, location!

Setting in a story (location) should be rich in detail, but not just any detail.  It should be detail that connects to the storyline (plot) and moves the story forward.

Consider Cinderella:   

In order for the story to work, several things must be in place. 

First:  The society must be one where children are subject to parents without question.  The story would not work in a place where Cinderella’s father could set her up with a trust fund in his will or where she could sue for her inheritance.  This may seem like a minor consideration, but I feel it must be considered.  Cinderella must be subject to the whims of her Stepmother as long as she is a child in the house.

Second:  The society must be one where there is some form of servitude.  Roman Slavery would work.  Edwardian England would work.  Modern day America would not work—except, perhaps in one specific way which I will get to in a minute.  The bottom line, though, is Cinderella must be reduced in social status to the lowest rung in order for her ascent to have the most impact.

Third:  The time and place (the elements of setting) must allow for some form of “divine intervention” which does not seem out of place.  Fairies in a medieval setting is a natural.  Fairies in Cleveland?  We won’t go there.

Fourth:  (and this may be key), the society must be built in some form of hierarchy.  If not kings and princes, then what?

Could Cinderella be written in a location other than the traditional, medieval setting?  Given the story’s simplicity, I would have to say yes (and with adjustment, the basic Cinderella story has been told in any number of settings) but these four points listed are vital to make the story work, even if they are only “in the background” of the setting.

So I am thinking the Stepmother in Cleveland could have run the father’s business into the ground and end up selling out to the “Too Big to Fail” Company.  “Too Big to Fail” might be privately owned so the son will one day inherit the business, and Stepmom might be on staff as part of the buyout agreement.  Cinderella could not only be responsible for the housework at home, but be hired as Stepmom’s gofer/file clerk/secretary (actually doing all of Stepmom’s work)…

I’m thinking that this may be a job for Hollywood, but you get the idea.  Setting must be more than just any house will do.  The elements in any setting must relate to and move the story forward, just like everything else in the story.

Of course, Cinderella at the “Too Big to Fail” Company might run into a problem with props, even if they have a Christmas party; but that will have to wait until the next post.

3 thoughts on “On Stories: Setting begins with Location, location, location.

  1. I’m just picking up on one thing – fairies in Cleveland. Allegedly from 1946 the Cleveland Browns (which I believe is a football team) had a mascot called ‘Brownie the Elf’. But you knew that, right, and that’s why you didn’t want to think about it? Anyway, I guess that gives you some kind of license to have supernatural beings. I don’t know much about Cleveland (not being an American) but as I recall it was built in the late 1700s/early 1800s which is historically quite recent, displaced some Native Americans, and was built on coal and mining. So in between these facts I’d imagine you could have angry elves displaced from underground habitats and annoyed at the theft of their resources, coupled maybe with fairies who don’t look like much (maybe often mistaken for children from poor homes?) but whose job it is to try to restore the balance between people, elves and nature… as a consequence of which they have to intervene in stock markets and disrupt computer systems, perhaps.
    Anyway – just a random thought that went somewhere you didn’t want to go!

    • No, its OK. Thoughts are good. Have more thoughts. Of course, a bit involved for Cinderella. Also, I vaguely recall a Disney movie about leprechauns around lake Erie… Still: go for it.
      -Michael

      • My trouble is I read something and my imagination spins off… being based in the UK I could well do something along these lines but would probably base it in Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle or Glasgow. However it’ll have to take its turn behind the one I’m finishing, the one I want to write next, and a romantic comedy about a serial killer (I made an off the cuff remark about how it must be possible to write a short story about this, and then it became a rod for my own back…).
        But your basic point is fine- setting is important because it does provide much of ‘stuff’ (atmosphere, geography, props, attitudes, expectations, values etc.) that enable the plot to work properly. Move a plot from one setting to another and a lot of things will need to be adjusted to fit.

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