There’s A Lot Of Scenery But

Setting: Location, surroundings, scenery, situation, background, set, locale, site, venue, backdrop. (These are the synonyms listed in the thesaurus.)

Setting is where your story takes place, its locale. But as Sinclair Lewis said:

“When I want to learn about the Azores, I’ll read the National Geographic, not a novel.”

Hence setting is not only a sense of place and time but all that it suggests. It is the atmosphere that the author creates, not through description only but through the characters’ thoughts, dialogue and actions. As an editor from New York once told me:

“Primarily, readers will need a greater context in which to place the plot. Try to extend the actual setting: the way different places look, smell and make the different characters feel, and how the different objects in their life look, the buildings and roads and bedrooms, for example. As previously stated, the characters are incomplete without a history and it is important for readers to understand where the characters are coming from in order for them to elicit sympathy.”

As much as I love to read, if I come across a long paragraph containing nothing but a description of Nature, no matter how beautiful it sounds, I tend to turn the page in pursuit of action and plot. I want to know what happens to the characters more than I want to know how the setting sun pours its golden rays over the world… or how the sea, the lake and the mountain look like at the time. If the description of Nature is not very brief and doesn’t have any relevance to the character or the plot then I am compelled to skip it.

Margaret Atwood wrote:
“Some of the problems confronting me were formal, but some had to do with the nature of the material itself and the difficulties I experienced in attempting to treat such material. In fact, as I write along, I realize that there isn’t a plot. There’s a lot of scenery, but no action. I have written some very nice paragraphs, but there’s nothing much in the way of events propelling them along.”

Imagine you’re in the theatre watching a beautiful scene on the stage, with no action, no character involvement. Do you think you can sit there and not be tempted to leave after five minutes if nothing happens? The same is true for a novel. If in page after page of description nothing happens then would you continue to read it? I know for sure I won’t. A setting is interesting for me as long as it sets the mood of the story. Hemingway was master of setting a scene with the minimum number of words. Were you not there with Santiago all along in the sea fighting the sharks?

Perhaps the best explanation for scene and setting can be found in John Leggett’s words:
“It is surely possible to tell a good story with no scene, no setting at all, no indication of where we are, just as we might expect to enjoy a play presented on a bare stage. If the characters and narrative are strong enough they will hold our interest without any background.
But of course all events occur somewhere, and often the place where they occur has a profound influence over what occurs. The landscape of a story, its atmosphere, its feeling of harshness or mildness, of gloom or cheer, of beauty or ugliness, is likely to affect the characters and the way they lead their lives.
A story’s setting is what puts us there, gives us readers a sense of being in the situation with the characters.
A setting, deftly portrayed, not only tells us where we are but gives the story a sense of truth, the credibility we speak of as verisimilitude.
But the real purpose of scene is its contribution to the story’s total, emotional effect. If it isn’t adding to that, the scene will be a distraction from, and a detraction to, the story.
To some stories the scene hardly matters. But a great many of the best stories, scene carries all the weight of a major character.”


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