Monday, October 14, 2013

Place-based Fiction

In the first exercise we did in class today, we explored and discussed some of the techniques and approaches to writing about a place in a work of fiction. Let's expand on that discussion a bit more. Why is place or the physical setting in fiction seen as so central and important to the success of such a work? Can you think of any successful works in which the physical location is unimportant or bears little relevance to the rest of the story? Alternatively, why do some writers insist on setting so intensely that physical places serve almost as additional characters in a book that we come to love or abhor? In other words, why is place such a big deal in fiction?


  1. I know I am the only one in this class who took Dr. Donovan's Tolkien Studies class, so I'll go ahead and bring this up. In that class we talked about how the setting in Lord of the Rings is almost like its own character. It is vital to the story--traversing the landscape, and the hardships the characters of LOTR must overcome because of the landscape, are all essential to the story. The story is about getting to Mordor, which is part of the place! It is only natural that the physical setting is so important. Of course, Tolkien is one of the few writers I think can of who successfully put so much description into the story (and I know some of you may argue that he puts too much description, but I loved his descriptions and at least some of it was essential, you have to admit). I think in high fantasy like Tolkien setting has to be important because the author has to invent it all.

    I honestly can't think of any works at the moment in which the setting wasn't important, but I know they exist. Sometimes certain stories could happen anywhere. In a lot of the stories that we have read for class, setting was pretty important, I think. LA made a lot of sense as the location for Box Office Poison. Santa Fe was a good location for Steve Brewer's book (it could have been set in other places, I suppose, but Santa Fe was still a logical choice).

    I think setting is very important in fiction because it can have a big influence on what happens in the story, and certain stories can only happen in certain places. If I were to write a story about mermaids, for example, it would have to take place in or near bodies of water, and not in a desert, for obvious reasons. Unless you make some weird desert mermaids, but in that case I would assume the desert mermaids would be essential to your story...I am in no way suggesting anyone write such a story, I am just trying to make a point. Setting matters. It has to at least make sense as a setting.

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    2. When Shakespeare was writing for the stage, his indications of setting were vague as could be, and the stage itself was almost entirely bare of props and decoration. It was up to the playgoer to supply the setting, as much as it was their responsibility to suspend disbelief and acknowledge the rules of asides and the actors' physical orientations. The actors themselves would sometimes mime their interactions with the setting (crouching and parting leaves in a thick jungle) or talk about it ("I'll hide behind this tapestry") to give the audience a better sense of what they should be imagining. Shakespeare is the first person I think of when "lack of setting" is brought up, because a good deal of setting in his plays is implied, with and without words.

      On top of that, I'd say that there are plays of his in which the setting--however it's presented--is hardly important at all. "Twelfth Night" and "The Winter's Tale" come to mind, as well as "A Comedy of Errors" and "Measure for Measure." Often, the setting simply justifies the characters' names, and a given city or country could just as easily be any other. What's important there is character interaction rather than their movement in space.

      Addressing Dr. Donovan's questions directly is tough. They're so broad! Setting is a major facet of immersion, and immersion is a major factor in how an audience judges a fiction or creative non-fiction story. If the audience is meant to occupy a character's mind or space, then it's expected for the creator to present what the character experiences--sight, sound, touch, thought--for the audience to experience as well.

      If contemporary audiences turn to fiction and creative non-fiction when they want an immersive experience, and if setting is a major facet of immersion, then stories that are successful today should tend to be those that present interesting and detailed settings.

    3. I just wanted to edit my comment, but the only option was to delete it. Oh well. I wanted to add that I've realized what stories I was thinking of that could take place pretty much anywhere: fairy tales. That's part of the reason they start with "once upon a time..." because that could be any time or place. We have all seen fairy tales told again and again in different forms, so we know this is true. Sometimes certain stories seem very familiar across cultures, and that is often because one culture took a story from another and simply made a few changes to make it theirs. They change it to make it make sense in their own setting. You can't just put something in a setting where it doesn't make sense without explaining it or making necessary changes to it, of course. When the setting is really vague and the story focuses on character interaction, sometimes you don't have to make very many changes at all.

  2. Anna has made some great points, and I am in complete agreement! For me, setting matters just as much as the plot, character development, or language used by the author. I have yet to read a story where the description of setting is so vague that it is almost nonexistent. Frankly, I dread thinking that there are stories out there that can do this. My question is - is it successful to write that way? It would be like filming a movie with a singular, white backdrop. Another way I think about it is that the author (in a sense) completely cuts off the reader's sense of "sight". In other words, the reader reads the story from the POV of the characters, but always from their heads, their minds and thoughts, never through their eyes. Correct me if I'm wrong, but those are my thoughts on the setting being nonexistent. Is it harder to write a story that has little or no setting? Even nonfiction - there must be some kind of setting to put the characters in. It seems impossible to make the characters do something/act in some way if the setting does not, likewise, interact with them, or present them with some sort of obstacle, wall, or boundary.


  3. Place is important, because to make anything believable or real we have to incorporate the five senses and I believe a place can help invoke all those senses. The setting needs to be carefully crafted when writing it down and expressing the scene to other readers, so that they can visualize the scene with just those descriptions. I can’t think of any successful work that the physical location is not important.

    I never thought that a physical location could be a character. I never thought that the setting in Lord of the Rings could be another character, but it makes sense after you explained it Anna, and it is important to the story, because they are traversing through it throughout the whole story.


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