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Five Elements of Fiction
by Debbie Wilson
“There will be no weather in this book.”— Mark Twain wrote of one of his books.
However, Snoopy always thought that setting was so important that he opened his stories with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” But setting is more than weather, in spite of Snoopy’s opinion.
According to Dean Koontz, background is :
“Background (Setting) is locale, the geographic place in which a story is set. Background is ethnic culture. Background is social strata, the class of society to which the characters in a story belong and through which they move. Background is mechanical detail, such as whether or not a silencer can be attached to a revolver or only a pistol. Background includes all of the many facts the author takes from the real world and inserts in his story in a quest for authenticity.” Dean Koontz, How to Write Best Selling Fiction, p. 167.
Background is also time period, with its unique customs, details, and nuances.
What can the setting do?
- The setting can be a source of conflict. In “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane, The Perfect Storm by Wolfgang Petersen, and “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, the setting itself is a producer of conflict. These stories contain a man-against-nature conflict.
- Vivid sensory details can involve the reader in the work as he experiences them vicariously. The more he can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what the character does, the more the reader will relate to the story, the more he will feel invested in the story.
- The setting can provide a unifying element. In The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the garden unifies the characters as three selfish, lonely people turn to the garden to uplift them. Working to repair it unites the two cousins and brings them their uncle/father who seeks peace there.
- It can intensify suspense. Most Gothic novels occur in lonely, dismal places or at night for a reason.
- Setting can explain the motivation of a character. The characters in Murder by Artifact by Barbara Graham differ from those in Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Mary Higgens Clark. Graham’s characters act like the small-town Tennesseeans they are. They interact with all levels of society in their environment, whether it’s the trash collector, Marmot the Varmint or Queen Doreen, the much despised wife of the mayor.
- On the other hand, Clark’s characters in Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting are from a higher socioeconomic level and a more sophisticated culture set in New York City. Meaningful interactions between social strata are limited. Exchanging characters in the two books would change the plots, because characters are products of their culture, their setting.
- It can further the theme. Think of the Mississippi River in Huckleberry Finn. The river symbolizes the journey Huck takes mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually over his relationship with the slave Jim.
Let’s look at Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. This is a masterfully written book on several levels: characterization, plot, foreshadowing, and description, but we will look at her use of setting. These are the first three paragraphs of chapter one.
“Little Man, would you come on? You keep it up and you’re gonna make us late.”
My youngest brother paid no attention to me. Grasping more firmly to his newspaper-wrapped notebook and his tin-can lunch of cornbread and oil sausage, he continued to concentrate on the dusty road. He lagged several feet behind my other brothers, Stacey and Christopher-John, and me, attempting to keep the rusty Mississippi dust from swelling with each step and drifting back upon his shiny black shoes and the cuffs of his corduroy pants by lifting each foot high before setting it gently down again. Always meticulously neat, six-year-old Little Man never allowed dirt or tears or stains to mar anything he owned. Today was no exception.
“You keep it up and make us late for school, Mama’s gonna wear you out,” I threatened, pulling with exasperation at the high collar of the Sunday dress Mama had made me wear for the first day of school—as if that event were something special. It seemed to me that showing up at school at all on a bright August-like October morning made for running the cool forest trails and wading barefoot in the forest pond was concession enough; Sunday clothing was asking too much. (pp. 3-4)
In the first three paragraphs, Taylor set up her time period, her time of the year, two of her characters, and some of the conflict. Her sharp use of details in the setting draws the reader in so that we are lifting our feet with Little Man and trying to keep those shiny black shoes clean. We can feel the coolness of the glades through which Cassie wants to run and remember the days when the outdoors beckoned us through the bright schoolhouse windows.
A few pages later Cassie describes the setting further and the family’s back story.
Before us the narrow, sun-splotched road wound like a lazy red serpent dividing the high forest bank of quiet, old trees on the left from the cotton field, forested by giant green-and purple stalks, on the right. A barbed-wire fence ran the length of the deep field, stretching eastward for over a quarter of a mile until it met the sloping green pastures that signaled the end of our family’s four hundred acres. An ancient oak tree on the slope, visible even now, was the official dividing mark between Logan land and the beginning of a dense forest.
Beyond the protective fencing of the forest, vast farming fields, worked by a multitude of share-cropping families, covered two thirds of a ten-square-mile plantation. That was Harlan Granger land.
Once our land had been Granger land too, but the Grangers had sold it during Reconstruction to a Yankee for tax money. In 1887, when the land was up for (sale) again, Grandpa had bought two hundred acres of it, and in 1918, after the first two hundred acres had been paid off, he had bought another two hundred. It was good rich land, much of it still virgin forest, and there was no debt on half of it. But there was a mortgage on the two hundred acres bought in 1918 and there were taxes on the full four hundred, and for the past three years there had not been enough money from the cotton to pay both and live on too.
That was why Papa had gone to work on the railroad.
In 1930 the price of cotton dropped. And so, in the spring of 1931, Papa set out looking for work, going as far north as Memphis and as far south as the Delta country. He had gone west too, into Louisiana. It was there he found work laying track for the railroad. He worked the remainder of the year away from us, not returning until the deep winter when the ground was cold and barren. The following spring after the planting was finished, he did the same. Now it was 1933, and Papa was again in Louisiana laying track.
I asked him once why he had to go away, why the land was so important.
He took my hand and said in his quiet way: “Look out there, Cassie girl. All that belongs to you. You ain’t never had to live on nobody’s place but your own and long as I live and the family survives, you’ll never have to. That’s important. You may not understand that now, but one day you will. Then you’ll see.” (pp. 6-7)
Here Taylor establishes the time period more definitely, provides the back story that will be a major source of conflict, provides more characterization, and it’s all tied into the land.
As the story continues, Taylor builds on these opening scenes, using the setting to further characterization, build suspense, supply foreshadowing, and deepen the theme of racism. Her tremendous descriptive details suck the reader in to the story and help him identify with the Logans.
As we write, we need to weave the setting with the rest of fiction’s elements through the senses. What do our viewpoint characters see, hear, smell, feel, and taste?
The setting is so much more crucial than just the weather.
Share a paragraph from you wip that shows the setting.
Debbie Wilson is the author of TIGER SHADOWS. The quality of her writing is amazing! Take time to read her posts on CHARACTER, PLOT, and CONFLICT too. You won’t be disappointed. She shares helpful quotes and examples from literary novels.