On Stories: Setting

Begin 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…

Don’t forget the props.

Apart from location, there is another important aspect to setting that must be considered.  I call it props (comes from too much work on stage), but in the analogy of the house, we should think of it as the furniture and all of the things and knick-knacks that make a house into a home.  This does not mean that everything needs to be mentioned.  Too much period detail can put a reader to sleep.  Instead, like the location of the story, the props must also advance the story and move it forward, and if it does not, why bring it up?

2) Props

Continuing with the story of Cinderella, we can see immediately that there are several vital props

First:  There is her mother’s old dress which the Stepmother finds and shreds. 

Now, I was thinking in the Too Big to Fail storyline (from the last post), and instead of a Christmas party, it could be some excuse for a masquerade party.  The Boss might let slip to the Stepmom that he is proud of his son’s MBA, but he really wishes the boy would find a nice girl and settle down.  The stepmom promptly gets her daughters dressed and ready.  Cinderella might also find a party costume in one of her mother’s old trunks, but Stepmom can find out and shred the thing.  Same business, but something has to happen for the reversal—for the story to work

Second:  There must be some way to tell the time.  In an ancient setting, the rising or setting of the moon might work, but otherwise the story must be set far enough in the direction of the present for there to be clocks to chime.  Did you think of that?

Third:  The slippers.  Can’t have Cinderella without slippers.  At least it must be something that comes in pairs.  I suppose gloves might work, but the Prince (or boss’ son) and Cinderella should have the chance to touch, hand to hand.  Anyway, a pair of something is vital for the final reversal, where the Stepmother breaks the slipper rather than let Cinderella try it on.  (aha!  Cinderella has the other one! 

When looking at props, even from scene to scene, you need to consider carefully what to include and what not to include.  Perhaps the most important point to remember is that for most of the time, the world must be filtered through the senses of your character. Like us, your character will notice/perceive the world based on who they are (what they enjoy) and what has meaning for them in their lives and the situation in which they find themselves. For example:

When the time traveler is ushered into the room to await her host, what will she notice? The Victorian loveseat, the drapes, the crossed swords over the fireplace, the large portrait of her host’s dead wife or the grandfather clock that chimes 4 o’clock, tea time? The only wrong answer is probably none of the above.
One might think the clock is a given for a time traveler, but she might make furniture as a hobby (or her husband might) and so the loveseat might be scrutinized and seen as well made with an expensive fabric. Then the drapes might be an Indian fabric, indicating that her Victorian host served time in India. Or if the host is a suspected vampire, she might notice that the drapes are drawn tight against any possible sunlight. If she is in a dangerous situation, her eye will be drawn to the swords (and any other potential weapons in the room), and then maybe the portrait looks like her, or someone she knew or met (time traveler) or like her Aunt Grace, or perhaps she might look at it to try and get some insight into this former Indian military officer who might be a vampire and is certainly a threat…

With all of that she might hardly notice the clock, time traveler though she is.

You can see that props in the overall story and from scene to scene must be chosen with care.  A typical home is full of junk, especially if you are like me and keep things.  Only make sure you don’t fill your story with junk.  Every piece should relate to the story you are telling.  Every piece should relate to the characters, too; but to get a handle on “character in setting”, as you might call it, we will need to look a character formation in another post…

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