In a recent forum discussion on setting ( not here elsewhere ), I noticed a lot of writers seem to think setting is not all that important to the story.
I was flabbergasted. Others argued it was necessary but not the end all/be all of a story.
As I was trying to argue my belief that Setting is not only important but extremely essential, I realized I couldn’t articulate on the fly, I had to think about it.
Interestingly enough I had just finished a book by Debbie Macomber called Mail-Order Bride, a Harlequin romance ( don’t groan ), which can be used to make my point.
Now for arguments sake if setting is merely a location as generic as say a home, or even as generic/specific ( if that’s possible - a location but not quite exact ) as Alaska than a writer who is working on a romance could build her characters - fiesty woman, stubborn hunk and plot - mail order bride and decide after where she wants to place them. She could even go as far as to tweak them to fit the location. For instance if she’s toying with location she must keep in mind that the cowboy would be wearing less than the Alaskan man. That Utah scenes might take place more outdoors than Alaska. And while the cowboy is clean shaven the Alaskan man might have a beard to protect him from the weather. The writer could even split the difference admitting the rustic cabins in either location are pretty much similar, each with the proverbial roaring fires. But what has the writer really done? She’s allowed herself to fall ( comfortably ) into the slot of genre and pretty awful genre as that.
Why is this?
Let’s take Mail Order Bride as an example. Here’s the story - Two Great Aunts, resembling the Baldwin sisters’ on the Waltons, brew up liquored tea, and an idea to get their great-niece’s mind off of being dumped at the alter. The idea is to send her off to Alaska under the guise of a paid vacation while waiting for her is a man whose mail-order bride ad they’ve answered. She is so drunk on her aunts ‘special’ tea that she goes through with the ceremony. In the morning however she’s horrified by her whirlwind marriage and tries to escape. He likes what he sees and plots to keep her.
Now for the most part it’s a pretty generic idea that knows no bounds, it can happen in the 1800's or for this book, the year 2000. It can take place in the west or Alaska.
Instinct, lead her to choose Alaska, and it’s a good choice. You can isolate the characters, the weather can stop the woman from fleeing, there are rough crews out there making her idea to travel alone dangerous. And here’s the big one; the cold can be used as a metaphor for her behavior.
Oddly enough out of that list the obvious are used, the metaphor ignored. That is how setting can become cardboard backdrops. She’s picked the obvious things about Alaska: a beard, the cold, the isolation, and lack of travel. She’s even tossed in Indian friends, knitting for tourists, a mysterious fever epidemic. In the cabin there are quilts on beds, dinners are rich stews, and nights are composed of Scrabble games. But nothing is wrung from setting it has stayed completely on the surface of Alaska. Everything you expect has been covered. In fact without the cold any isolated place on the planet would suffice.
Now what if to fix the book we added more detail. We could add descriptions of glacial waters, the aurora borealis, history of the town and people, detailed description of culture and fish recipes but would the story become better? Relatively speaking - yes. However, if nothing links back to the character, plot and theme, if the writer misses the opportunity to expose this place as an echo of deeper value, than the story remains in mediocrity.
Here’s the kicker - all the detail in the world is not going to matter until you realize the setting must interweave character, plot and theme.
First of all, the writer had good instincts to place this story in Alaska had she dug deeper, a better story might’ve emerged.
Had she linked Alaska to the barren feeling of the heroine, the isolation of the hero, worked in the freeze out on her emotions, the beard not just as protective shield against frostbite but a shield against love than symbolically cutting it would’ve been to let down his guard.
But every opportunity the writer had to go deeper she flubbed it by turning the beard cutting into a cute compromise with a look-he’s-a-hunk moment. The isolation was also a plot ploy and nothing emotional was culled from it.
This is why certain genre can be destructive, the writers play it safe. In fact you could easily say Mail-Order-Bride has no theme, no character and no plot. What it has is an idea, stereotypes, and a formula.
I’m being hard on her, I know but she can’t complain, she’s a bestseller.
Now, here’s an example of how Setting links to character, plot and theme and delivers the payoff.
Take We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. ( I haven’t read it but I’ve seen the movie - there are several differences but it’s pretty close * spoilers upcoming if you haven’t seen or read it. ) There is an important setting scene in the movie in which Eva decides to redecorate her office. She glues maps, postcards old travel memorably up on the walls. The travel items are not just part of her past but future. She loves to travel. In the time it takes her to retrieve her husband to show him her handiwork little Kevin as destroyed the room by squirt gunning paint all over the walls. His act of ‘violence’ with a ‘weapon’ has not only destroyed memories but a future. At the end of the book she is stuck in her hometown facing the repercussions of Kevin’s actions and ironically working at a travel agency to make ends meet rather than traveling.
Details are not as important as links. The travel theme is a link, the gun and the sight of sprayed walls are a link ( later the exterior of her own house will be doused with red paint - the anty is upped from the isolated and enclosed behavior of her son to everybody in town is now aware forcing her not to live with it - as she accepts the ruined room - but deal with it by scraping the paint off her house. )
Now, what if the writer had focused merely on details, not links. Well, then Eva could’ve decorated her office with paisley wallpaper. Kevin could have scribbled on the walls with Magic Marker - see, the difference? Details are an issue, yes, but the right details- the links are more important. When you break the links, the impact of the story fails.
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