by Jo Anne Fontanilla
Every story takes place at same point or points in space and in time. It is incumbent upon the writer of fiction to “place” his story in space and time, as early as possible in his narrative, so that you will begin making the proper associations with the setting. The setting also presents a share of technical difficulties, but most novelists embrace them gladly. The novel is a prose form and emphasizes realism: its style ought to be, for the most part, terse and transparently plain. Whatever poetic impulse the novelist may have is likely to be frustrated: only the setting provides him an outlet for it; for in his descriptive writing he is allowed to express his feeling for beauty and create a scene in lavish hues, if he wishes.
The degree of elaboration with which setting is depicted depends upon a number of considerations, all of which the astute writer keeps in mind. Perhaps the first consideration is the importance of the setting in relation to the other essential elements in the story—plot and character. In some stories— especially contemporary stories that takes place in surroundings that are familiar to most readers— the element of setting can be safely minimized. The particular setting, moreover, is not indispensable to the conversation that constitutes the body of the story, although the weather not only furnishes its title but also points symbolically to the problem raised by the slightly developed plot.
Another consideration for the conscientious writer is the probable familiarity of his setting. If the setting is one that is likely to be familiar to most of his readers, the writer needs to depict it in detail; he may assume that the details he selects will give his readers that pleasure of recognition that is one of the special values of familiar material. For example, although millions of Americans have never visited Coney Island, most of them are so well acquainted with the appearance and nature of the resort that the writer using this setting in a story for an American audience need feel no compulsion to present this particular setting elaborately.
With a setting that is remote from most readers not only in space but also in time, a different problem arises. A writer may safely assume that contemporary London will be much more familiar to most of his readers than Elizabethan or eighteenth-century London. If his story takes place in either earlier period, the writer will have to build up his setting out of appropriate details. Such a treatment involves information concerning the houses, the costumes, the manners, and the types of work and play characteristic of the period. Since the development of literary realism, readers become increasingly critical of the accuracy of historic settings, and the contemporary writer runs the risk of annoying his readers if he indulges in such conspicuous anachronism as the Elizabethan audience allowed its dramatist when they used settings remote in time and place. In the use of settings much less familiar than New York or London—such as ancient Persia or medieval India—the contemporary writer may content himself with a minimum of specific details—so long as the details he chooses and emphasizes are appropriate—since every few of his readers are in a position to challenge the historical accuracy of such details as he offers.
Finally, the treatment of setting, like the treatment of character, will depend on the mode in which the writer is working, whether it is classical, romantic, or realistic. What we have said concerning character in this connection is equally true of setting. In classical stories—in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas or Voltaire’s Candide, for instance—the setting is usually sketched in broadly. In romantic stories there is a greater attention to detail, the writer may fall back on elements in setting that have been accumulated by generations of romance writers. The Romantic Age brought in a passionate sense of identification with nature, and the idealization of it. It is soon reflected in the novel. In realistic stories, the writer must consider seriously the accuracy and fullness of his details, since it is one of the tenets of realism that setting should be depicted with a high degree of circumstantiality. Faithful adherence to this tenet resulted in the development, in the middle and later nineteenth-century.
The most richly regional story in this collection is Faulkner’s “Was,” and the very detailed presentation of setting, atmosphere, and manners is justified not only because the place and the time of the story are unfamiliar even to most American readers, but also because the details are intrinsically interesting and amusing.
In contemporary realism, however, the reader is likely to find a rather less circumstantial treatment of American settings than the realistic fiction of the nineteenth century. This less particularized treatment is due, on the one hand, to the writer’s assumption that readers have now become familiar with the flora and fauna of regional America and, on the other hand, to a change in the conception of the technique of effective description.
In the more expansive form of the novel, the writer may feel free to devote a proportionately greater amount of space to the depiction of setting in and by itself than the constricted form of the short story will permit.
Most authors’ delight in turning out lengthy passages of description, “set pieces” with lavish strings of adjectives. However, by now that belongs to a past fashion. Today’s readers are impatient and skip solid pages or even paragraphs that do not advance the story. It is best to insert description as unobtrusively as possible, an image here, and the next—after dialogue, or a bit or scatter his pictures of the physical background, just as a dramatist artfully handles his “exposition.”
Percy Lubbock observes that paring a novel bare of most detail is occasionally good, but not very often. The consensus is that the factual inventory can be carried too far, is it is by Hugh Walpole and Theodore Dreiser, who compile altogether too much insignificant data; but that is merely abuse of a method. Too few externals can also be an error. To most of us, clothes and houses are telling clues, and the novelist owes it to us to report how his characters dress, and vividly where and how they live. At the same time, he fulfills his role to a larger degree as a social historian. But, besides this a professor Lathrop suggests, the setting has become ever more important in contemporary fiction, because we increasingly recognize a man’s background as one of the factors that has shaped him. The active pressure of environment in forming personality is widely acknowledged now. “The setting is seen as a ‘force'” The plot is often presented not as a thing in itself, but as something caused and conditional, possible and characteristic only in its milieu. Hence, the greater demand to have the setting authentic, realistic. A thin or inadequately studied setting is not acceptable today.”
Ultimately, the kind and amount of background detail one likes in a book depends on its subject and aim, and no less on the temperament of the author and each reader.
Reading Fiction: A Method of Analysis with Selections for Study by Fred Benjamin Millett; Harper, New York 1950
The Art of Reading the Novel by Philip Freund; Collier Books, New York 1965