Some stories demand more attention to place than others. Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” for example, tells the story of Marlow, who seeks adventure in Africa on “a mighty big river . . . resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of land.” Marlow captains a boat to transport ivory on this river, and to find Kurtz, another ivory trader who has not returned from a previous voyage. Marlow’s story is about exploring this territory, so there is a heightened sense of setting throughout the entire novella.
Not all stories demand that extensive attention to setting, but all writers need to be aware of how integral place is to the human experience. We don’t just notice a place when we first see it and then forget about it entirely. Setting surrounds us, influences us, and we interact with it constantly. The same relationship should be true of our characters and their settings.
Writers often establish setting when a character first enters it. The details of place help to ground the character in a specific moment, giving the reader a vivid experience. In Mary Gaitskill’s short story “Daisy’s Valentine,” Joey and Daisy work in the clerical department of a secondhand bookstore in Manhattan. This description comes on the first page:
The department was a square-tiled space between morose gray metal stacks of books and a dirty wall with thin white pipes running along the bottom of it. There were brown boxes of books everywhere, scatters of paper, ashtrays, Styrofoam cups, broken chairs, the occasional flashing mouse. Customers roamed the boundaries of the area, searching for the exit.As the characters interact with one another throughout the story, Gaitskill also acknowledges their interaction with their surroundings. For example, after a pleasing discussion with a customer, Daisy “went back to her desk and stuck the paper in her drawer and began typing.” It’s a simple detail, but one that situates Daisy—and the reader—in a specific place and that helps create authenticity.
This interaction can take on even more significance, too. At one point in the story, Joey and Daisy talk in the department:
The next morning he went to Daisy’s desk and sat near her on a box of books bearing an unflattering chalk drawing of the shipping department supervisor. She held her Styrofoam cup of tea with both hands and drank from it, looking over its rim with dark-shadowed eyes.They’ve each told their significant others about the growing relationship between them and they share those reactions. The scene continues:
She picked up a piece of cardboard and began sweeping the mouse droppings on her desk into a neat pile. “So now they both know.”The details reinforce the dirtiness of the place. But setting isn’t just a backdrop here. Daisy is also distracting herself with mouse turds during this significant conversation, and that reveals something about her state of mind.
“And we can go to the opera tonight. I have tickets to Die Walküre. You can medicate and we can stay out all night.”
“I don’t want to medicate.” She pulled the sticky, coffee-stained wastebasket out from under her desk and showered the mouse turds into it with a deft swish of cardboard.
Creating a relationship between the character and her surroundings throughout the story—whether in large chunks or small doses—creates a believable and meaningful world for the character to inhabit, one in which plot can unfold with credibility.