Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Setting doesn’t seem all that important. As long as the reader has an idea of where it happens, isn’t that enough?

Sometimes that can be enough. Dorothy Parker's short story, “Here We Are," features newlyweds on the train heading to their honeymoon. They're both anxious about their first night as a married couple. Parker does establish the setting at the beginning:

The train had leaped at curves and bounded along straightaways, rendering balance a praiseworthy achievement and a sporadic one; and the young man had pushed and hoisted and tucked and shifted the bags with concentrated care.

Once the setting has been established, Parker pretty much leaves it alone and just lets the couple interact with each other. (They have a lot to say in this dialogue-heavy story, but much of the real communication takes place underneath the dialogue, in subtext.)

Often, though, setting gets more play in fiction and deservedly so, as it has a great many uses.

Setting can influence the plot, as it does in ZZ Packer's “Brownies," where two troops of Brownies—one group black, the other white—share the same bathroom at a camp. When one girl accuses another of racial name-calling, conflict ensues with surprising discoveries. And it all grows from the two troops inhabiting the same bathroom, under the radar of the adult leaders.

Setting can also create mood. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" the reader is invited into Dr. Heidegger's study along with four aging characters:

It was a dim, old-fashioned chamber, festooned with cobwebs and besprinkled with antique dust. Around the walls stood several oaken bookcases . . . Over the central bookcase was a bronze bust of Hippocrates, with which, according to some authorities, Dr. Heidegger was accustomed to hold consultations in all difficult cases of his practice. In the obscurest corner of the room stood a tall and narrow oaken closet, with its door ajar, within which doubtfully appeared a skeleton.

Certainly this study is a strange place that inspires foreboding. I don't know that I would willingly submit to the sort of “experiments" that go on here. But the four aging characters do, and the result creates as much unease as the setting.

Setting can even cut to the very core of a moment or character to reveal deeper meaning. In Edwidge Danticat's “Night Women," a prostitute in Haiti sees: “. . . the stars peeking through the small holes in the roof that none of my suitors will fix for me, because they like to watch a scrap of the sky while lying on their naked backs on my mat."

These holes solidify her role with these men. They visit her to be pleased and do not think beyond that experience to the rainy days when she might suffer leaks, or summer nights when bugs are a nuisance as she tries to sleep.

Setting is a versatile and powerful tool. It can simply place the characters in the moment, but why stop there, when it can do so much more?