The term “setting” describes the place in which the events of a narrative take place. But “place” itself can be a trickier term to define. Is it simply a setting where the story unfolds? Is it a location far removed from the narrator? Could it act as a context clue? The answer: all of the above! “Setting” is a versatile literary tool that a skilled writer can employ to bestow a story with a certain theme and tone, provide context for an event, or tell us something about a character.
Notice, for example, how in this passage of The Rings of Saturn, the German-born author W.G. Sebald sets a scene and tone by melding together an incredible array of locations from the European continent:
That evening, in Amsterdam, I sat in the peace of the lounge of a private hotel by the Vondel Park, which I knew from earlier visits, and made notes on the stations of my journey, now almost at an end: the days I had spent on various enquiries at Bad Kissingen, the panic attack in Baden, the boat excursion on Lake Zurich, my run of good luck at the casino in Lindau, and my visits to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and to the grave of my patron saint in Nuremberg, of whom legend has it that he was the son of a king, from Dacia or Denmark, who married a French princess in Paris.
Notice how Sebald literally sets the scene in this paragraph, sketching out the narrator’s journey thus far, offering a glimpse of the way he views the world, and sheds light on his personal history.
Your turn! Write an opening scene to a piece of fiction or nonfiction that references a variety of locations and events. These locations might be across countries, like in the example above, or they might be special places in your town or local area. In what way will your eclectic collection of locations inform your reader? Might they shed light on the past of a given character? Perhaps their intentions? I’m excited to read what you come up with!