The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A Dark and Stormy Night

by Steve Gajadhar

"One of the first things I learned about the difference between good and bad writing is that good writing is not entirely dependent upon the setting. And bad writing sometimes is."
--Ron Rozelle

I’m currently working on a story set in Northern Canada. It’s one I’ve been hacking out off and on for months. I’m not sure I’ll ever get it quite right, but writing it has revealed to me the importance of place and the impact of setting on a story.

There are various roles setting can play in a work of fiction and the writer needs to decide how important setting is going to be to the story. But relax, we’re not left out there on our own, many a book has been written on setting, and odds are many a story or novel has already been set in the place you are thinking of setting your story in. We should all feel free to lift what we need and make it our own. Writers are pirates: we take what we want but we use it differently than its original owner ever dreamed of.

I’ve read a few (okay, more than a few) books on writing and for my loonie Jack Hodgins breaks down the role of setting best in A Passion for Narrative. I’ve lifted Jack’s hierarchal roles and added my own short interpretations. I hope Jack doesn’t mind…

The Roles of Setting:


A story that could be told anywhere, anytime. Setting does nothing and is unimportant to the story. In some cases a bare setting is done on purpose, to reflect the writer’s views, as a comment on society (the homogeneity of our society is getting close to being cliché though), or to highlight a specific place that lacks setting—a white drywall room. For me this purposeful lack of setting cannot be classified under this category and should fall under setting that affects character below, because the lack of setting becomes as critical to the story as a fully developed setting would be. So just where the hell can you use a negligible setting? I think the negligible setting is at home in a flash, or in a purely character driven short.

Stage Setting

A basic description of where and when. Think of novels that title chapters with simple location name and date. Nothing fancy, only orientation in the vastness of spacetime. The setting is pulled up and switched out like backgrounds in a play. The characters are what’s important, and so the stage sets are few and not overly detailed. We don’t want our audience paying more attention to the sets than the characters on stage.

Local Colour

Here we are starting to get into stories that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Phonetically spelled dialogue is a big indicator of the local colour setting. Historical fiction uses this type of setting a lot. Think of the writer as a tour guide that takes the reader along, stopping to point out the tree that Maggie and Ken carved their names into, and the faded frescoes from before the war. The tour guide aspect is also what makes local colour settings very dangerous to employ. Every once in awhile you get the tour guide that really knows his shit, adds to the tour, brings the place alive, but most of the time the tour guide is a bored teenager reciting the tour pamphlet verbatim. No one is listening. No is looking where you want them to look.


The proper use of atmosphere puts the reader into the story, makes the pulse quicken, the eyes dilate (okay, maybe not, but you get the idea). Movies are a great place to see atmosphere at work. Perusing crime novels, and sci-fi and fantasy will also turn up some great examples. Or just check out Stephen King, he's a master. Although he uses the house on the hill sparingly, he does use it, and he never wastes it. Characters look up at it and walk below it until even the thickest of us knows that the house is evil and that something terrible is going to happen there. A good director will have the audience shrinking into their seats. A good writer can use atmospheric setting to do the same.

Setting That Affects Character

This one's hard to pull off. Most settings in this category could very easily shift back a step to atmosphere, or up a step to becoming a character in and of istelf. But for an example look no further than Faulkner. It’s no coincidence that steamy Yoknapatawpha county was populated with lazy and disinterested characters. Then there's Hemingway, Ernest always placed his male protagonists in settings that augmented his code of unspoken, unacknowledged courage. Tough men in tough places.

A Character Itself

The Artic, the desert, the Mariannas Trench, the surface of the Moon; these are settings that impact everything about the story. Setting can become the main antagonist against which the characters struggle for survival. Ever heard of the Old Man and the Sea? How about Sur by Ursula K. Le Guin? It can even be part of a broader struggle as it is in Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Metaphor and Symbol

Anytime setting is a character the author can extend the use of setting until it becomes metaphorical and symbolical. If you’ve ever read Paul Bowles (and if you haven’t, I suggest you do) you know how powerful metaphorical settings can be. Bowles’ fictional Africa was a metaphor for his philosophy of the West versus the unknowable Muslim mind and world. The desert is alien to a New York aristocrat; the Muslim is alien to a Westerner.

My story falls under setting that affects character. I couldn’t drop my Northern Canadian characters into the desert and keep everything else the same. People don’t freeze to death in the desert. Yet both the desert and the Artic breed a toughness that is reflected in their inhabitants. That’s part of the subtlety and magic in interpreting setting and using it correctly.

Whew! That’s a good primer for now. In a future blog I’ll touch on the importance of creating your place and not just reconstituting it.


Blogger Anne C. said...

I don't know if you would consider this to be an opposing viewpoint:

Wed Aug 23, 10:14:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

If you're interested, google "Fiction as reality check." That should get you there.

Wed Aug 23, 10:17:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

This is very useful for me, Steve. Place is an area of writing I definately have trouble with. Thanks, Anna

Wed Aug 23, 12:54:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I found this very helpful, Steve. I'm going to print it as reference. I spend a lot of time on setting in my stories and often try to make it almost a character in itself or at least strongly representative of a protagonist's emotional state. One of my favourite stories in which setting figures heavily is "The Painted Door" by Sinclair Ross.

Wed Aug 23, 02:18:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I'm thinking a lot about place in my new story. I don't usually. I'm actually doing research. And enjoying it. As far as I'm concerned I'm only going to use what interests me, though. And I'll make up the rest. Place is always 'psychological place' for me.

I'm writing about the suburbs. But I don't want any particular suburb. I want 'suburb' like there is 'forest' in Grimm's fairy tales. However, doing research into the early suburbs of Canada is proving to be valuable into getting into the psychological space of the characters. I realized that the characters in the early sixties would be thinking very differently about the suburbs than I do today.

Wed Aug 23, 03:23:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I'm doing research for the first time, too. I'm a little afraid of getting lost in details.

Wed Aug 23, 06:09:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Before reading Hodgins' book, I have to admit I really didn't think enough about setting either. And it seems one of the first elements I forget when I write fiction. Thanks for the remind :)

Mon Aug 28, 12:12:00 pm GMT-4  

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