Lesson #79: What’s in a Setting?

In one of my college courses (I’m an English Literature major), I read a novel titled “Waiting for the Barbarians” by J. M. Coetzee. It’s an intriguing book for several reasons, but especially because of how the novel was written: it has very little defined setting. Let me explain.  The book is intentionally written to be applied into MANY different eras, countries, and situations – it refers to vague names, places, people, titles, etc. that could be applied in many eras/places throughout history. For example, the book is about a rural, small-town Magistrate (who is simply called just that – Magistrate) who struggles with the “Empire” and its processes, and who is waiting for an attack from “the barbarians”. The only indication we have as to when and where this story takes place is by reading about the author – who is from South Africa. For this reason, many believe this is a story that takes place in South Africa during the era of (and recession of) the British Empire’s control of South Africa. However, this book could also be placed within numerous other contexts: it could be set in India during the Great Partition, or in Germany during the Holocaust, etc. Because of this vagueness, the book has received some rather harsh criticism. However, because of the author’s extreme care in using these vague references/topics in allegorical ways, many also argue that the novel works very well (thus, the title has become a “classic”). The fact of the matter is, even without having a major, defined setting, the author provides enough setting to engage the readers – brilliantly, I might add, because the story can be applied in so many contexts. We read specific and detailed descriptions of the houses, prison, people, and other aspects of the small town the Magistrate lives in which add complexity and depth to the story. (Side note: blindness is a theme of the novel. It even begins with the description of Colonel Joll’s sunglasses, which make him “appear” blind). These allegorical ties make what setting we do have worthwhile. The major point to remember: without an intentional kind of strong setting, the book would be completely bland. This book works so well because the setting adds a specific tone to the story. Honestly, if this book’s setting had been made more specific (let’s say the book had occassional references to Kenya or Mumbai), it would not have been as quite as effective, intriguing, or classic as it is.

The moral of the story: you must be intentional with your setting!

We could contrast Waiting for the Barbarians with a million “flops” that failed to incorporate sufficient setting to keep the readers engaged, alert, and in-the-know. We could also pinpoint a million other “classics” that have brilliantly created interesting, creative, and drool-worthy settings (was I the only one who searched the back of her closet to see if Aslan was calling her to Narnia?)

For now, suffice it to say that: setting is universally important.

Why is setting important? Simple. Setting allows readers to know five things:

  1. Where the story takes place,
  2. When the story takes place,
  3. How the culture functions/effects around/within the character,
  4. How the era/people effect the plot,
  5. And how/why the natural world effects the plot and characters.

If the reader does not know most (if not, all) of these five things in your story… well, your readers won’t be very intrigued. Or happy. (Did you catch the “harsh criticism” mentioned above?) The truth is, as readers, we want to be in The Know. We also want to experience a story. Thus, being divulged in the setting is essential. After all, what is life without setting? Try to explain to me HOW your life is interesting without a lick of setting. Go on. Try.

It don’t work.

So. What are the basics of setting (especially for a creative writer)? Hmm. The answer to this question can be a bit more complex. We’ll spend the next few lessons discussing setting (such as how to make your setting as strong as another character, what the five senses do to a novel, etc.) So keep your eyes peeled – there’s lots o’ good content coming your way!

For now: I encourage you to find five examples of exemplary setting. Why do these settings work? What makes them engaging?

With pen to paper,

Kayla R. Woodhouse

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