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Writing the Short Story 2: The Setting

by The Editor Magazine   


The setting of a story may be made to embrace the scene, the background, the local color and the environment. It is one of the distinguishing qualities of a successful short-story, and an analysis of ancient and modern fiction will prove readily its constantly increasing value.

The function of the setting is simply to make fiction a real copy of life. Mary E.Wilkins-Freeman's stories of New England are real because her setting is so true and impressive that one knows every detail, of the country she pictures. Occasionally, but more rarely, the setting is employed by way of contrast, to emphasize some dramatic or essential action. A murder in the midst of peaceful setting, for example, is doubly awful. As a rule, however, the setting simply lends itself to the narration and prepares the readers' minds for what follows.

A little thought will show that the setting is closely allied with the characters, with the action, and with the atmosphere.

In the preceding article, it has been shown how the environment of characters leaves its impress. Conversely, of course, the description of the setting affords a hint as to the characters. Here once more the introduction of contrast affords excellent opportunities. The city boy in the country, the country boy in the city—the possibilities are practically limitless. In general, however, the characters must fit their surroundings, their environment, their setting.

The relation of setting to action is simply- in accordance with the generally understood rule that no quality of description, explanation or retrospection should clog the forward movement of a story. To be acceptable, the setting must develop with the story or action. It must contribute to it. Stevenson has it that there should be "not one sentence that is not part and parcel of the business of the story." To win a place, description must be more than pretty, dialogue more than smart, analysis more than searching. Unless each contributes to the action or the development of the plot, it must be pronounced inadmissible.

No better examples are to be found of this relation of setting to action than some of Kipling's India stories, picturing the hopelessness of the heat. To one who has never considered them from this standpoint, the study will prove a revelation.

The relation of setting to atmosphere forms what is known as "local color." In Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman's stories of New England, one gets the quiet beauty, the protracted calm of a people and a place far removed from the hurry and worry of cosmopolitan life. With the first sentences of his "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe creates an atmosphere of mystery and horror: "During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was; but with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit." Yet in this example, and the other suggested ones, the atmosphere is in no sense removed from the setting; rather, it is part of it.

Now, having defined setting, explained its function, and shown its relation to character, action, and atmosphere, we must study the actual way in which to build.

So far as setting goes, short-stories divide themselves into two general groups: those with scenes and characters of modern times, and those with scenes and characters of some past period of history. The first group subdivides into stories with backgrounds familiar to the writer through personal experiences, and stories with backgrounds not familiar. Almost without exception, the beginner writes of English lords and ladies, of Spanish castles or of kings and queens. This is a serious error. Authors should begin with the known, prove that they have mastered the art of setting by selling their work, and then—and not till then—turn to old or to unfamiliar scenes and times.

Considering the classifications in the reverse order, that we may dismiss temporarily the latter propensity, we find there are but two ways to give truthful settings to unknown scenes: first, by a thorough study of the geography and topography, of the costumes, of the speech, and of the customs, by a detailed study of books written of and about the place, including descriptions and narratives written at that time as well as those of a later period; and, second, by an acquisition of the same knowledge by word of mouth, by letters, or by old diaries. In the first instance, a systematic study of all available books upon the subject is necessary; in the second, an acquaintance of one who knows the time or people, directly or indirectly, is essential. Without the possession of this knowledge—this thorough comprehension of all details—setting is a farce, and a story becomes artificial and unnatural.

Turning, then, to the familiar or known, the task is to manufacture setting and all it embraces—atmosphere, color, tone, theme-aid. In general, this demands the practical working knowledge of description and of suggestion necessary for the general depiction of a background, which includes customs, conditions, circumstances, periods, localities, scenes, and actions, times, and possibly moods of characters.

Naturally, the naked enumeration of details constitutes pure description. This presentation of the picture must be so handled as to be painted into the story, just as the back curtain and the flies upon a theater stage give setting in the narrow sense of the word without interfering with the play. To halt the action of the plot to depict an idea is to sacrifice the interest. At the same time, it is essential that the writer possess a knowledge of how to describe artistically, and a brief outline study of this subject is by no means out of place in an article on setting.

Description itself may be defined as that form of writing which has for its purpose the painting of a scene, the formation of an idea presented by the senses, particularly that of sight. The characteristics of successful general descriptions are outlined for study in this table:

1. The view-point:

(a)   Restricted and permitting only the inclusion of details that may be seen from that one view-point.

(b)   Personal or individual. A description of how a scene appears to the casual observer is flat and commonplace. Each person sees things a little differently from his neighbors, and to a large extent the emphasizing of these points of difference gives to writing what is known as individuality.

(c)   May change in the course of the narrative, but all single descriptions must of themselves be unified and correct-vision results.

(d) May be that of the character, that of the author, or merely general and implied.

2. A central figure, article, or point; a fundamental idea. When one looks at a picture, there is some one detail that first meets the eye. In the description, there must be something of the kind to emphasize. It may not be amiss to suggest that in pictures the principal object is placed at one side rather than in the center.

3. The selection and rejection of essential, subordinate and superfluous details. The story description is for a purpose, and everything that does not add to it must be discarded. The mere selection for beauty, for symmetry, for artistic effect, should be discouraged.

4.  The proper proportion of details. The more important a detail, of course, the more space and words it demands. It is only as a result of much practice and common-sense study that one can determine exactly the relative importance of details.

5.  The phraseology with which thoughts are clothed, dividing naturally into :

(a) Choice of words.

(b) Sentence constructions that give: 1, Variety; 2, Adaptation of idea to effect; 3, Appeal.

(c) Suitable comparisons and a thorough knowledge of figurative language.

Going a step further, it is obvious that the description of a person must reflect not only his outward appearance, but his character, his environment. Description in stories, moreover, is strictly for the purpose of creating certain impressions. This necessitates a very careful selection of details that none will counteract or overbalance the original and what must generally be the true impression. The author must himself be impressed by his description, not merely as a picture, but as a setting creating the proper effect, else he can not convey to others this impression. In this connection it is well for the writer to consider both his own and his reader's mood. Finally, it must be understood that the description or picture creates a certain definite impression which can not be offset, and that unless this is adapted to the tone of the story, the general effect is hopelessly false and impossible.

Turning next to suggestion as a means of picturing the setting, the writer finds that it demands more than all else an ability to depict character and to manufacture natural dialogue. Dialect is especially suggestive of setting, because it presents a locality by its mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. Dialogue without variations of spelling and pronunciation depicts conditions, circumstances, periods of time, scenes and actions and moods. All these, bear in mind, are ingredients of the setting. They are produced by appealing to the intelligence and to the imagination of the reader. 

The close connection between character delineation and setting is emphasized when one considers emotion, which of course is based upon what might be idiosyncrasies of character, or locality, or a combination of the two, namely, environment. It needs only a little study to work out this close relationship.

Dialogue and character delineation, however, are only two suggestive elements. Others may be enumerated, as times, scenes, localities, extraordinary actions, and customs. Cataloguing them crudely, simply to explain, the author will find that midnight is a time for weird incidents (time) ; that a dying log-fire produces sentiment (scene) ; that a race course, a ship on the ocean or the jungle in Africa all produce certain and unmistakable backgrounds (localities) ; that a battle, a wreck, a cyclone contribute distinct settings (extraordinary actions) ; and, finally, that cannibalism, witchcraft or religious demands color a story vividly (customs).

In brief, therefore, it is found that setting embodies the scene, the background, local color and environment; that its function is to make fiction a real copy of life; that it is closely related to character, to action and to atmosphere; that it may be familiar through first or second-hand knowledge; that it may be depicted by direct description or by suggestion, the latter involving the relationship of character, dialogue, time, scene, locality, extraordinary action and custom.

Here is the bare statement of the facts ; they may be memorized parrot-fashion, but to be serviceable they must be studied in examples and produced in practice.

It is the purpose of this series of articles to suggest for reading books which so far as possible answer the demands of various types of analysis. "The Vicar of Wakefield" not only depicts real characters, but is a good study of setting as to time, country and what may be termed broadly "atmosphere." The same close-knit structure characterizes "The Rise of Silas

Lapham," "The Mill on the Floss," "Mother's Revolt," Poe's mystery tales, the Van Bibber and the Sherlock Holmes and the Raffles stories, and many others.

Specific points of interest for study may be enumerated. In "The Marble Faun," the impressions of Hilda upon viewing St. Peter's Cathedral, ranging from the first suggestion of religious emotion to the climax of the confessional, are wonderful studies of setting. The utter hopelessness of the heat figures in many of Kipling's earlier stories, but particularly in "At the End of the Passage," which for general atmosphere can hardly be surpassed. Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" has already been mentioned. Prize winning stories of the better kind, it should be noted, lean more upon character delineation and setting than upon any other one essential, not excepting plot.

There is no end, it seems, to the studies of setting. Hawthorne, Kipling, Poe, Washington Irving, Dickens, Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman, Richard Harding Davis, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung—it is difficult to recall a well-known writer who has not mastered the trick of giving a vivid and natural setting to his work. Each has recognized, moreover, the inseparable union of character delineation and setting.

Once the masters are read and analyzed, and the rules studied, the author is ready to strike out for himself. Here are some helpful exercises based upon the preceding article:

1.  Study carefully the natural scene of a city-street story —a busy corner, the entrance of a store or an apple-woman's stand.

(a) Describe it carefully, following the general rules of description.

(b) Introduce a character and show his thoughts and actions as affected by the surroundings.

(c) Conceive the possibilities for dramatic but plausible action, and work out several short examples.

2.  Describe briefly a scene that suggests:

(a)   The weird.

(b)   The dangerous.

(c)   The calm and peaceful.

(d)   The "lull before the storm."

3. Describe a natural condition of the sun, the moon or the wind in such a way as to presage action in keeping with it. 4. Describe a peculiar and generally unknown scene. 

(a) People it with characters.

(b)   Add dialogue and a situation.

(c)   Eliminate all descriptions, endeavoring to retain by suggestions of characters and speech the original scene.

5.  Describe a scene after a fire or destructive storm.

(a) Describe entirely by comparison with its previous appearance.

(b) Describe in such a way as to show only the nature of the destruction.           

(c) Describe to show only the fire or storm itself, without recourse to actual effect or damage.

6.  Describe a society scene.

(a)   From the view-point of a member of society.

(b)   From the view-point of an outcast.

(c)   From the view-point of an illiterate man or woman who only half appreciates or understands the artificial and the attractive features.

7.  Write a description showing the direct connection with

(a)   Characters.

(b)   Action.

(c)   Atmosphere.

8.  Describe accurately the scene of your story and allow a friend to read it, telling you his impressions of the "atmosphere" presented. This will show you whether you have made others understand what you see mentally.

9.  Write a story showing how the surroundings or environment affects the actions of your characters.

10. Write a story in which a desired effect, aim or impression is intensified by the scene. Note that Cinderella's despair is directly affected by her first surroundings and her joy by the lights, colors, and attentions.

(a) Write a ghost story, creating a weird or uncanny "atmosphere" before introducing any actual suggestion of the supernatural.

(b) Write a story of premonition, directly caused or influenced by the surroundings.

11.  Write a story that will reverse the process by making your characters (1) climb to success from unhappy surroundings, (2) go to ruin with every opportunity pointing toward success.

12.  Write a story with the setting falsely encouraging or discouraging, such as a girl deluded by the glamour of the stage, a girl who is about to marry a man from whom for some illogical reason she shrinks, and similar situations.