By Steven Shatkin
Let’s play a game. I am going to describe a story (don’t worry, it’s one you have heard before), and all you have to do is guess what it is. Sound easy enough?
So, this story is about two groups of people at odds with each other. One group is made up of “civilized” colonizers with more advanced technology and great cities far away in their homeland. The second group is made up of the “barbaric” natives of land these two groups encounter each other in. They live a tribal lifestyle, are deeply religious, and (most importantly) possess something valuable they do not let the colonizers take. War seems inevitable, but the colonists introduce a young man to the natives in a hope he will help them take the treasure. However, the young man meets a young woman among the natives and falls in love. After conversing with a source of ancestral knowledge and learning more about the natives, the young man realizes the error of his people’s ways and sides with the natives in the conflict. Peace is reached (for better or for worse) and the young man is accepted as a member of the natives.
Think you know it? Well, I have three answers for you: Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga, Disney’s Pocahontas, and James Cameron’s Avatar. All three stories, as well as many more I am not well-versed in, share the same plot, but it would be ridiculous to say they are the same story. What allows these stories to each exist as its own, unique story is the power of setting.
Setting is as important as the protagonist of a story, despite how passive of a character it may seem. Dune cannot exist without Arrakis, Pocahontas without the discovery of the Americas, nor Avatar without Pandora. Setting shapes characters by defining the obstacles and boons they will encounter of the course of their journey. These slight changes in development allow a story to be seen in a new light, hence revealing new truths and aspects of the story. Try to imagine a book completely devoid of setting. The end result would feel abstract and lacking in detail, and the characters would seem as if they were missing a defining feature.
Another interesting case where the setting of a story is with Sophocles’ Antigone. For those unfamiliar with the story, it is an Ancient Greek tragedy about Antigone trying to bury her brother, Polynices, who betrayed the city. However, Creon, the king of Thebes, declared that Polynices shall remained unburied. Antigone defies Creon until she is jailed and kills herself (right before Creon comes to set her free) rather than submit to his decree. During World War II in occupied France, this was one of the plays French theatres were still allowed to be performed. The French had set the play in occupied France and seen Antigone as the tragic hero who died for the sake of defying an oppressive tyrant, while the Germans had set it in a German controlled territory and seen Creon as the rightful king who lost everything before the righteousness of his laws and methods were seen. The two settings imposed on the story, as you can see, led to two radically different interpretations of the characters and their decisions.
I feel I should also mention how setting is also important to forms of writing aside from standard prose. Playwriting heavily relies on setting, but is able to have it exist as a more abstract element than with the written word. One good example of this kind of setting is in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, where, even though the play is set within the confines of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, most of the scenes take place between the scenes of Shakespeare’s play. Because of its physical location in the abstract, Stoppard’s play is able to better explore more metaphysical concepts and premises than one founded solely in the concrete. Another style of writing that can make good use of setting is poetry. Though poetry is less reliant on setting than prose, setting is still a crucial aspect of some poems. “Deeply Appreciated” by Tony Barnstone is one such piece where setting is central to the poem. In this poem, the speaker watches an interaction between a homeless woman and a young man on a shuttle from LAX where the man ends up in tears after realizing how undeserving he is of what he possesses. It is the setting of this poem that allowed such an interaction to occur, led to the lives of the characters being what they are, and left the man alone at his stop under the judgmental moon.
In brief, every story has been told before once you break it down to its basic elements. Though this may at first sound discouraging to the aspiring writer, it also must be remembered that every story has yet to be told in every way. The unique choices a writer makes with the setting of his pieces leads to unique characters, unique challenges, and an overall unique story. Remember to take careful note of setting in what you read and write. See how they change the characters and imagine what a different setting can do for the piece.