In the following section, you will gain an understanding of setting. You’ll discover the four key elements of a novel’s setting and find out how to define the setting for your novel. When completed you will be able to define the setting of any book you are editing.
The Setting Of Your Novel
By this point, you should have grasped the slippery concept of story and defined it for your own novel. If you have skipped exercise in the last lesson, I would urge you to go back and complete the exercise. The work you do in this exercise will be the foundation for a better understanding of these key concepts.
Having considered the importance of story in understanding the wider structure of a novel, we can now go a step deeper into structure and look at setting.
The setting is much more than the place in which the novel is set and it consists of four key elements:
We will look at each of these in turn.
The Four Elements of Setting
The first element to consider is the story’s period. This is the story’s place in time. It’s pretty straight forward. It might be that your book is set in a contemporary period, or the Roman period or even the far flung future. However, the period needs to be clearly defined.
The second element is duration. This is the length of time that the novel story spans. This might be a single day, or months or even decades. There’s no set rules, however, it is important that, as an editor and/or writer, you are aware of the duration.
The next element is location. This is the story’s place in space. Does your story take place in one room of a house, in a city or perhaps a massive space station? Again, the actual location is not that important, what is critical is your awareness as an editor of the location. In fact, it is not so much the location but the boundaries of the location that is often important.
The final element is the level of conflict. As you will discover conflict is an important aspect of all storytelling and is a key part of developing narrative tension and engaging stories. However, conflict is much more than your main character getting into a fight. It is the lifeblood of storytelling. We will be revisiting the importance of conflict throughout this course.
There are three types or levels of conflict:
- Inner: This is a protagonist’s internal thoughts, feelings and belief system.
- Personal: This is the protagonist’s relationships with friends and family.
- Extra personal: This is the protagonist’s relationship with society as a whole.
Inner conflict is the level of conflict that gives novels an advantage over other mediums, such as films. The inner conflict is the voice that plays inside everyone’s head. It is their thinking, decision-making, sets of beliefs, prejudices, etc. A skillful author will establish an inner voice for their main characters and then demonstrate how this conflicts with external events and actions. The beauty of a novel is that you can “show” a reader the protagonist’s inner thoughts. You can demonstrate how there is a conflict between these inner thoughts and the character’s outer actions. A good example of a novel that uses inner conflict well is Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.
Personal conflict focuses on the conflict that arises from the interaction between characters. Conflict, in this context, is not necessarily violence (though that may be an option). Conflict is simply a set of circumstances/events/thoughts that are opposed to the protagonist’s wishes. A good example of personal conflict is the soap opera. I would also add to this that any great love story operates on a personal conflict level—boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl’s parents disapprove of the relationship.
Extrapersonal conflict is the final level of conflict and involves the protagonist’s interaction with a wider society. This could be with the beliefs of society, such as in George Orwell’s 1984 or with the police/army/enemy (see any war/action movie). Extrapersonal conflict is almost exclusively event-driven and lends itself best to the big screen.
We will come back to these elements but as you can see from this section, Setting is far more than just the location of the novel. It is a subtle mix of factors that work together to make a richer story. As an editor, your job is to be aware of these elements and how they are presented by the writer.
The final step in this section is to consider the role of conflict in your novel. If you follow the exercise you will be able to clearly define the setting for the book you are editing.
- The first step is to record the period in which your novel is set.
- The next step is to write down the duration of your novel.
- The third step is to record the location of your novel.
- The final step is to develop an awareness of the level of conflict in your novel. To do this try to consider the three types of conflict and how your book fits into one or all. Most books will have some aspects of all three but the emphasis tends to be on a single conflict type. It is essential you understand the conflict map of the book you are editing.