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What is the Importance of Setting

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March 2011
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What is the importance of setting in a short story? Every short story must include a setting. It provides the backdrop of the story, establishing the time, place, and context.   

The writer selects a particular setting for many other reasons—as a motive, as a metaphor, to create conflict, to create a mood.

How the writer describes the passage of time is also important to the reader. The writer can use scene, summary, or flashback to show the passage of time.
 
In this article, I will discuss the importance of setting. I will cover following aspects of setting:

  • Definition of setting
  • Role of setting
  • How to Write about Time
  • Requirements of the Writer

Definition of a Short Story

The setting refers to the time and place and context of the story. The story takes place in a certain location, most often a single location. For instance, in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” , location is critical to the story, which takes place in the Yukon. The man is traveling through the winter snow with his dog, the temperature 50 below zero. If he doesn’t get to the camp by nightfall, he will die. Without this particular location, there would be no story.
 
The setting also includes the time of the story. Time is fictional, not real. Each story takes place during a specific period of time, most often a short time span, such as a conversation, hour, few hours, few days. In “Lust” by author Susan Minot, the short story takes place over several years.

Sometimes the story takes place within a particular context–social, political, economic, historical.
 
The writer’s must create a setting that allows the reader to suspend disbelief and read the story. To do this, the writer creates a setting that is believable, by using real or imagined names, places, concrete and specific details. The writer must also describe the setting with vivid descriptions and imagery, some imagined and others realistic.
 
How the writer describes the place and uses time contributes to the believability of the story. 

The Role of Setting

The most important reason for setting is to create a backdrop for the story–provide the story with a particular time and place. If the writer describes the setting with vivid descriptions and imagery, the writer can create a sense of believability in the mind of the reader.

Sometimes, setting is the conflict of the story. The setting stresses the tension between the main character and the setting, usually nature. For instance, in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, the conflict is between the man travelling on foot in weather in  the cold and snow of the winter. He attempts to hike, alone, with only his dog to a camp site, where is friends wait. However, to get to the destination, he must hike through the snow, ice, and cold.  He is in a race against time and frostbite. In the end, the man freezes to death. Without this winter particular setting there is no story.

Sometimes, setting can act as a metaphor of the story. For instance, in Hemingway’s “Hills with White Elephants”, the dialogue of the story reveals the metaphorical nature of the setting. The hills are a metaphor for fertility.

Sometimes, the writer describes a particular setting to create an atmosphere or mood. Read Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher “or “Tell-Tale-Heart”, and you will see how he creates a gruesome mood that adds to the tension of the story, one that reveals the main characters own emotional state. In short, a writer can create a particular mood/atmosphere to help the reader feel the psychological state of the main character.

Sometimes, the setting can act as a motive, driving the main character’s actions. In Tom Franklin’s, “Alaska”, a story about failed fantasy, the destination “Alaska” is the motive for the story that is told by the main character. He tells a tale about a planned trip to Alaska, but the trip never occurs. The writer tells us what would happen if the trip were to take place, how the men would quit their jobs, sell their cars, leave their girlfriends, and set out for Alaska to start a new life. The story begins with:  “Our aim was this: Alaska.” And the story ends with: We would stop playing as if on cue and look at each other, suddenly happy, remembering Alaska, waiting for us.”

Time

Time in a short story is fictional or an illusion. It is not real. And so the writer must create a story that makes time seem real, allowing the reader to feel the meaning of time. How can the writer do this? The writer can craft a scene, write summary, put into use the techniques of flashback or flash forward.
 
Summary
A summary enables the writer to talk about “blocks of time”, such as the past week, past few months, past year, or many years in the past. The summary provides background information, an overview of the story, events that happened in the past. It brings the story up to the present time. The writer can create a summary through scene, describing a scene with essential details, a scene from the past. In a summary, the writer “tells” the reader what happened.
 
Scene
As mentioned in the previous section, the writer can show the passage of time by describing a scene, one that dramatizes an event in the story. A typical scene includes a setting, dialogue, action, vivid details, and the passage of time. Remember, action occurs within a particular span of time. Reading a scene in a short story gives the reader a sense of the passage of time. In a scene, the writer “shows” the reader what happened.
 
Flashback
A writer can employ the technique of the flashback to share an event, details, background information, anything that occurred in the past. The writer moves from the present scene to a past scene, and so a flashback is a scene within a scene.

The writer can describe a flashback through the main character’s memory or expressed as a summary, providing background information to the story.

Often, the writer deploys the flashback to write about something significant that happened in the character’s past, which allows the reader to understand the story in the present. The use of flashback also enables the writer to include events that happened before the opening of the story.

The Role of the Writer

All short stories require a time and place—or backdrop to the story. The setting contributes to the believability of the story. The writer must create a setting that allows the reader to suspend disbelief. The writer can employ vivid details, concrete and specific descriptions, or language that appeals to the senses of the reader. Since a short story is short, the writer must add only the essential details of  setting,those that contribute to the mood, conflict, meaning, and believability of the story.

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1 Comment

  1. Rebecca says:

    Very helpful! 🙂

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