I was going through my blogroll and stumbled across a post that I really loved by Shanti from Virtually Read. You may remember her from her guest post on the blog. The post was the start of a new blog series called Setting in Stone that talks about how setting impacts stories. I liked it so much that I started writing a comment in response, but then it got longer… and longer… and longer… and I just decided to make it a post! Love the idea of this feature, and looking forward to more from Virtually Read on this topic ^-^
How Setting Impacts Stories
If setting plays a major part in story, then I’d say it falls into two categories.
The first is what Shanti discussed about certain settings generally having similar themes. It makes sense; certain issues and phenomenons tend to happen in certain places. There are some great examples of stories leveraging setting that readily come to mind, one of which is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The story met little to no success when Fitzgerald was alive. In fact, is was largely regarded as a failure. It was only after Fitzgerald’s death that the story truly began to mean something because it was a window into a different world and time (i.e., setting). The book uses the narration of an outsider to explain what effectively represents the larger-than-life, corrupt spirit of the Roaring Twenties. Also consider David Levithan and Rachel Cohn’s Twelve Days of Dash and Lily, which is a love letter to New York City at its core, and Nancy Werlin’s The Rules of Survival, which explores the ways our system fails victims of abuse.
While we’re here, we should also mention books that follow the path of Ashley Poston’s We Own the Night, which is about a group of characters from a small town. Some want to leave, some want to stay. On the outside, it looks like a very typical Small Town YA book. What makes the story impactful is that it’s one of the few books that changes setting halfway through, and it actually works because of how the characters perceive the new city setting and fit into it. Poston’s characters are, across the board, simultaneously desperate to leave their small town but unable to leave it due to the attachment they feel. The story talks about how we fit into places and the ways our perceptions are changed by how and where we grow up.
Another exceptional case is books like George Orwell’s infamous 1984. It’s tricky to categorize this one. On one hand, it doesn’t surpass the boundaries of time as many of the issues he talks about are modern ones. On the other hand, the book becomes more and more relevant the longer time goes on, releasing it from its fixed status in the year 1984. In fact, the novel was written in 1949, showing just how much of a visionary Orwell was. However, I would still categorize it as a setting-defined book because, as I mentioned before, it’s very specific to the circumstances of our world today.
I’d say that the second category is when the setting is still a major part of the story, but the story is more than the setting. There are a handful of ways that can be achieved. A few that come to mind are when the book’s central themes revolve around human life by itself, not how human life is impacted by setting, and when the character’s circumstances reject setting.
Min Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires explores the life of a 21st Century girl whose issues, more than anything else, speak to human nature, mental illness, and the role of a woman. Leila Sales’ This Song Will Save Your Life also falls into this category, where the main character’s problems talk about human cruelty, friendship, and how passion can change a life. Finally, I have to mention Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily, which is one of the best YA books I’ve read throughout my blogging career and is a short but sweeping novel about the ways love sustains and destroys us. These are themes that are common across the world and across history and can’t be pinned down to one single time.
What I mean by character circumstances rejecting setting is that the premise is wholly uncliché and/or the characters don’t fall into line with their setting. A boy who grows up in urban gang territory grows up to be a middle-of-the-road, clean-cut businessman in a small town kind of deal. What we’re really talking about when it comes to this is nature vs. nurture. My stance is that nurture is the rule; nature is the exception. I think that comes through in how I relay my opinions here. We could have a whole other psychological conversation about that, but let’s stick to the books for now.
Examples of nature bleeding through nurture as it relates to characters and setting include David Klass’ Losers Take All (about non-athletic kids in an athletic high school), Bethany Crandell’s Summer on the Short Bus (about a mean girl who’s a counselor at a camp for disabled youth), Rhiannon Thomas’ Long May She Reign (about a scientist 23rd in line for the throne who becomes queen), and Gordon Korman’s Ungifted (about an average kid at a school for gifted students). The most famous example of this kind of storyline is Anne Frank’s Diary, which demonstrates unfailing kindness and optimism in the face of hatred and hopelessness. On a more genre-specific level, we’ve also got books like Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse trilogy, where the story revolves around a girl who is more of an intellectual than outwardly strong. To someone who doesn’t read YA, this may seem inconsequential, but when I first read it, I was relieved to finally find a new fantasy series that doesn’t want one more Katniss Everdeen as its heroine.
Overall, this is very much based in opinion, so the ending message itself is negligible. You could agree with me or not; this is just how I view the literary world. The lines between setting and circumstance can be drawn an infinite number of ways. I think what’s important to recognize here, more than setting and more than circumstance, is that what defines a book and makes it a classic is how it speaks to people. No matter what the book is about or where its set, great books are achieved through great writing. Whether that great writing uses setting as a major or minor tool is entirely up to the writer.
What do you think about setting? What role does it play in stories, and how important is it? Be sure to check out Shanti’s post as well!