Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Pearson on Unsung Setting

At, Mary Pearson (author of The Adoration of Jenna Fox) considers how setting rarely receives its due in narrative writing. Excerpts:
Characters? Everybody loves them. They sweep on stage, grab your attention, and demand the spotlight.

Plot? It's right up there with character, stealing the show, swishing around with twists and turns, dipping, soaring, and making you zip through the pages.

But the silent partner in the performance, the floorboards, the rafters, and even the music that makes plot and character shine is the one I want to talk about today. The silent partner doesn't get to take a lot of bows or many times even take any credit, but without it, character and plot would trip all over their feet, fall flat, forget their lines, and say stupid things. Heck, they would stop breathing altogether.

The humble partner I am talking about is


See? It doesn't even ask for a capital S.
Read the whole thing. Pearson proceeds to argue that setting is the soil in which stories grow, the empty stage on which they stride. I think she's right. Consider how a simple tale of cunning detective thwarts career thief changes when moved from New York to Botswana or to one of Jupiter's Galilean moons. Despite sharing similar plot arcs, Neuromancer feels worlds away from any of Richard Stark's Parker novels. That's because setting is more than color or icing, more than a chance for an author to wax poetic. It sets boundaries, draws lines, holds the course. It says, "You go this far -- but no farther."

(Picture: CC 2008 by

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