How important is setting in a novel? Does it really matter where a story is set, or if the scene is expressly painted for you?
I enjoy painting. I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it. Getting creative and messy with brightly colored globs of acrylic goo that I can smear in whatever patterns and shapes I desire can be wonderfully freeing. Some people, however, prefer more constraint. I don’t know how much the concept has taken hold in other places, but in the south a place called “Sips and Strokes” has been springing up everywhere lately. It seems to be a popular venue for “girl’s night” (I don’t really know for sure since I don’t have a lot of “girl friends” and don’t do many girly things in the first place). You take your beverage of choice and they provide the easels, paints, canvases and brushes. Then they show you what to paint. Each person’s comes out differently, but they’re all basically the same thing: a sunflower, or the Eiffel Tower, or a pot of flowers. (They all seem to be girly things as well. Bear in mind, I don’t really speak from experience since I’ve never been, but I have friends who love it and have reported back on the experience). It’s basically a grown up version of paint-by-number.
Don’t get me wrong, I see the value in it (beyond “girl time” I mean). If you feel creative, but need direction, or look at a blank canvas with no clue where to start, this sort of thing would be perfect. It’s like the difference between a book setting the scene for you, and you making it up for yourself. How much do you want the author to paint the picture?
Obviously there are books where setting is immensely important. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example, Harper Lee had to set the scene for the story to work. The setting was almost another character. Without it, the events wouldn’t have happened the same way, or mattered as much. On the other hand, “Perks of Being a Wallflower” didn’t seem so dependent on setting. Sure, we knew Charlie’s brother played football at Penn State, but they could have been from anywhere. The main story could have taken place in any town.
To me, it depends on what you’re going for. If your story is a socioeconomic commentary, it probably matters more. If it’s a story based more on the characters and their interactions than the plot, or something more fantastical where the main character will travel to another land, I don’t think the city the character starts is that important.
I have a history of not including a concrete setting in the books I write. I think it’s simply that the setting hasn’t mattered much. It hasn’t been necessary to the plot. In my head, my stories takes place in the south, because that’s what I know, but I like leaving it open to the reader to imagine it in their own city. I like stories that don’t give it all away.
“Bridge to Terebithia” for example. I couldn’t tell you where that story is set. It very well might be mentioned, but it wasn’t important enough for me to remember. And because it wasn’t important enough to remember, it could take place wherever I wanted. Like in my backyard. I felt closer to the story, more pulled in by the fact such amazing things could just as easily occur for me as for the characters.
Don’t misunderstand, I think stories with definitive setting are wonderful too. “The Chronicles of Narnia” had to start in London, and C.S. Lewis did a great job describing the scene. “Little House on the Prairie” obviously had to occur on the prairie. “Harry Potter” had to describe the setting for the story to come alive. Hogwarts was a character in it’s own right.
I guess this is coming to mind because I’m revising a manuscript and catching places where I’ve used southern phrases. Like “gotten a hold of” instead of just “gotten.” Which is all well and good if the setting were important, if I’d specifically said it took place in the south and included southern mannerisms, like Harper Lee did. But for a more generic setting, I think the language needs to be more generic.
It comes back to painting. I enjoy the creative release of slapping color on canvas in any pattern and combination I choose, so I like reading books where I can shape the setting how I want. That’s one reason I write. I’m not so big on the paint-by-numbers, grabbing me by the hand and leading me down the path mentality though. What I’m saying is, if an author is going to set the scene for me, I want it to be beautifully and masterfully done, a Monet or Van Gogh. Otherwise, it leaves me in setting limbo, with a half-fleshed out scene that’s set in Seattle or Maryland, just because, without giving me the real feel of Seattle or Maryland. If it’s not important, I’d just as soon have it left out.
How do you feel? Do you like books that leave the setting open for your imagination? Or do you prefer to have the scene set for you? Is it important at all?