A story does not take place in a vacuum.
A story has characters, a point of view and is set in a particular time and place. Often, the setting is of no great importance, but it must be there nevertheless.
In some stories the setting almost becomes a character in itself because it affects the actions and feelings of the people in the story. Setting need not be specifically geographical, that is, in a particular country, city or suburb. A setting can be a place: a bedroom, a classroom, a park or even a car.
John Cheever, one of the finest short story writers in the world, wrote a wonderful story entitled The Five Forty-Eight, which takes place almost entirely on a train during a journey from the city job of the protagonist and his home in the outer suburbs.
Babylon Revisited, a famous and much anthologised story by F. Scott Fitzgerald is set in Paris, the bar of a hotel and the main character’s sister-in-law’s apartment. He uses the city to great effect to incorporate flashbacks (the past) and to show how the city and its inhabitants have altered over a period of years. This is a long short story and the author has the space to develop setting in great detail.
Setting, used artistically, can strengthen characterisation by revealing things about the main character: an untidy bedroom with an odd piece of furniture in an unusual position, an old car kept in pristine condition, a very neat working desk with drawers full of discarded chocolate wrappers. The possibilities are endless and learners can use this handy tool any way they choose. Observation is the trick. Writers must learn to observe and absorb their surroundings, wherever they are.
In this example of observing and collecting impressions of place (setting) the writer sat on the front fence of where she lived and waited. And watched. These are her impressions.
Setting – a suburban street
An untidy street, this one.
Clearly inner city, obviously not trendy.
But trying to be.
That’s what this country purports to be, doesn’t it?
So here I am, part of the multicultural society.
No one around yet. Too early?
No animals on the loose.
No people on the roam.
Only the dirty white van with the flattened tyres.
Undriveable. Full of miscellaneous rubbish.
Fading pink insulating batts. Been there forever.
Kerosene cans. Raggedy blankets.
Is an arsonist living nearby?
Many FOR SALE signs.
Sign of recession?
Or depression…from living too long in this street.
QUAINT…EDWARDIAN…RENOVATOR’S OPPORTUNITY… HIGHLY DESIRABLE
Real estate agents are fiction writers.
A sari glides past.
Richly coloured silk floating around sandalled feet.
Drab cardigan for warmth spoils the exotic effect.
This is St. Kilda…not Sri Lanka.
A body builder bulging in startling shiny tights.
Electric blue, silver striped legs, shaven chest.
Muscle bound, he moves like a robot.
An impossibly tall skinny man from the house across the street.
He is dressed entirely in black.
His only clothes I suspect.
Tight skinny jeans on tight skinny legs.
Regulation rips at the knees.
Long flapping overcoat, also black.
Hair too black to be natural hangs like a curtain around his face.
A stark pale face. Long, like his body.
Eyes barricaded behind reflective sunnies.
On a grey Melbourne day.
He’s an odd one, for sure.
Ah, but what’s this?
Out of the house trots stubby Blue Heeler.
Plump. Pert. Well cared for.
Genuine doggy affection shown to man in black.
Another surprise. Small dark haired boy-child emerges.
One of those haircuts, spiky on top, vestigial pigtail at back.
Dressed in black. Like Daddy.
A miniature Goth.
Woman in black.
But making a statement with iridescent pink and green hair.
Pushes a stroller containing a very small person.
A concession being made here: the black romper suit has big white polka dots.
A girl-child perhaps?
Impossible to tell at this distance.
Rude to move too CLOSE UP.
Sit still and observe this…this…
For that’s what they are.
A mother, a father, two small children. And a dog.
They pause a moment at their front gate to collect each other. Affectionately.
They flick me an incurious glance, smile at each other.
And walk off.
Mother pushing stroller.
Father holding small boy’s hand.
Dog trotting obediently alongside.
I turn my recording eye onto myself.
Try to see myself from their point of view.
This is their street.
Perhaps I am the odd one, after all.
The list is reproduced here exactly as the writer recorded it. At a later time, she may decide to take a character or two from this observation and use them in a short story. It is obvious that the writer is more interested in people than place, as the writing becomes more alive when she is recording details about real people.