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On Setting, Part I

Setting, or a sense of place, is as important in a story as character, plot or sense of urgency and stakes. At its most basic meaning, setting seeks to show the time and place in which the characters live and the events of the plot happen. But it's not as simple as including a year or the name of a town in the first paragraph.


Henry James's The American begins with the line "On a brilliant day in May, in the year 1868, a gentleman was reclining at his ease on the great circular divan which at that period occupied the centre of the Salon Carre, in the Museum of the Louvre." Which immediately answers the question about who, what, where - and then, leaves the why for the rest of the novel to discover. The same can be said about Yaa Gyasi's debut novel Homegoing and its' opening: "The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland a fire raged through the woods just outside her father's compound." That this sprawling novel starts in an Asante village is established by the end of the first paragraph.


Take the opening liners from recent best selling fiction novels:


"The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers of the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort...In that little farm town, nothing surprising ever happened, not since the Vignes twins had disappeared. But that morning in April 1968, on his way to work, Lou spotted Desiree Vignes walking along Partridge Road, carrying a small leather suitcase." (Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half )


Or


"1952

The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh's moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog." (Delia Owens's Where the Crawdads Sing, or a novel that Yaa Gyasi confessed she wishes she had written in a recent Guardian interview).


This instinct, to start with a date and setting as a way to disperse this information comes from a journalistic paradigm.


Most reportage opens in the following form:


On [date], [name of characters] [verb] [setting].

For ex. "On March 20, 2003, the U.S. Marines invaded Iraq."


This form is also quite common:


[Place]—[Character] [Events].


"Baghdad—The U.S. Marines took the city with minimal injury."


The sooner the reader is grounded in the novel, the better chances of immersing them in the world, trapping them in the dream.





Despite this, many emerging writers will set their story in a 'vacuum' deliberately. They want the story to feel 'universal' or 'as if it could have happened anywhere.' But a story that can happen anywhere is also a story that immediately falls into the trap of happening nowhere. It loses a vital component of what makes fiction seem realistic or credible; a sense of place paves a way for detailed, visceral, sensory-driven imagery and description.


Even science fiction novels and fantasy novels take place somewhere, in some world. How dull would the Harry Potter series become if it was any old English castle on the English countryside (probably something belonging to the Windsor estate)? What readers enjoy most about any piece of fiction, regardless of genre, is the world-building, whether that world might be realistic or fantastical.


Just the following four options for a 'pizza joint' can change the scope and tone of the story:

a. A Pizza Hut with bars on its windows and doors.

b. A Pizza Hut housed in a mall's food court.

c. A Pizza Hut across from a mosque.

d. A Pizza Hut in the middle of Chinatown, Singapore.


These four places are entirely different, just as the stories which might be produced around them are entirely different. Choosing the unexpected setting has the potential to lead to an unexpected story.

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