Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction

Chapter 3: Settings


3.1 Definitions


The setting of a narrative has been defined as

The setting has also been seen in terms of place, space, and state.  However, although each of these terms has a contribution to make to the setting, none of them is the same as the setting itself.  A setting is often associated with the objects found within it, but again, these objects together do not completely define the setting.


3.2 Setting and Language


There are some differences between settings that are described using language, and those that are not.

Settings that are not described linguistically are likely to be visual, with some non-linguistic aural elements. As such, more elements of the setting are usually presented to the respondent, whereas a linguistically-encoded setting usually resorts to some kind of linguistic shorthand, such as the use of certain key words, for example, hospital, battlefield etc, without going into great detail about all the elements of the setting.  In this regard, it can be noted that a detailed linguistic description of a setting in a narrative makes it more concrete.

The difference between linguistic and non-linguistic presentations of setting, as regards the level of detail of its elements, is especially evident when one contrasts the settings of a short written tale with that of a film.  However, some narratives that are dependent on artificial sets, such as ballet and drama, may resort to what can be described as minimalist settings, because of economic, artistic, conventional or practical reasons.  These settings are described as minimalist because they are dependent on some kind of visual shorthand: for example, the sketchy drawing of a window instead of a real window, or sometimes, no representation of a window at all. At any rate, even the settings of ballet or drama are usually more detailed than those described linguistically.


3.3 Stereotypical Settings


Some narratives (usually those belonging to certain genres) have stereotypical settings. Bal for example has described settings which involve ‘declarations of love by moonlight on a balcony, high-flown reveries on a mountain-top, a rendezvous in an inn, ghostly appearances among ruins, and brawls in cafés’ (1985: 96).  All of these settings have their appropriate generic connections.  What can be described as stereotypical settings are also found in classical literature.  A locus amoenus (a ‘pleasant place’), for example, which is a feature of certain classical works, has a fixed combination of ‘a meadow, a tree and a running stream’ (Bal 1985: 96-7).


3.4 Setting and Scene


A setting is different from scene. There are at least two definitions of scene which one should consider here:


Table  3. 1: Two Definitions of Scene in Narrative Theory

In drama,

an act may consist of a few scenes, each of which is different in time and place from another

In the cinema,

a rather similar definition is found, although the bigger division into acts may not be present, or is not overt in the cinema.

Another definition:

the similarity between story duration and discourse or text duration;

A good example of scene

is found in dialogue: the narrator virtually disappears here, and story duration is equivalent to discourse duration.


3.5 Internal and External Settings


Settings are not only external. They can also be internal and psychological in nature. A psychological setting may be a reflection of what a character thinks or feels. Sometimes, an external physical setting can tell us about the psychological state of the person.


3.6 Setting and Narrative Composition


There are some considerations in setting and narrative composition or production one may want to think about. One of them is that a writer or narrative producer may initially engage in the overall selection of a setting, which is followed by the selection – especially important in a narrative which uses language – of what elements to include from the overall setting.  Thus the selection of setting may be a two-tier process (see section 3.8 below).

Another consideration, which has been mentioned above, is that the settings in a film (due to the nature of the medium) are necessarily more detailed. This means that the director, producer, or cinematographer can be less selective in the choice of the settings of a film. In drama however, the dramatist, director, set-designer or producer may make some form of selection from the overall setting.


3.7 Setting and Narrator’s Choice


Apart from the writer or producer, a setting may also be subject to the narrator's choice. The narrator's choice is especially relevant in the case of first-person narratives (see 7.3-7.7), where whatever is included or left out by the narrator may serve a purpose.  The narrator's choice of scene for example (that is, the equation of discourse time with story time), may serve the purpose of dramatizing the narrative.


3.8 Macro- and Micro-Settings


One way by which we can solve the problem of settings in narrative, is for us to divide the settings of a narrative into macro- and micro-settings, as indicated below.



If the setting shifts, it can be said that we are actually dealing with a macro-setting, as the shift may involve two or more entirely different (micro-)settings. The constant characteristics shared by the various micro-settings are the common elements shared by the overall macro-setting. One difficulty here is whether the idea of a macro-setting can still be applied if there are frequent and quite drastic changes in setting.


3.9 Are Settings Always ‘There’?: Indirect Presentation of Setting


Some settings may not actually be ‘there’ in the narrative present of the fictional universe, as they may be recalled through memory and (re-)created in the mind of characters. The recollection of settings is commonly found in first person narratives, where the question of reliability may sometimes arise (7.10), as we are not sure about the accuracy of the character’s memory.  But it may also be a feature of third person narratives, when a character relates a story or incident, or when the third person narrator tries to recreate a character's memory of a scene.

When a setting is described by a personage, or is associated with a personage's memory, the setting can be described as indirect.  The indirect presentation of setting is readily associated with linguistically-encoded narratives, but it may also be associated with ballet or film, although, in the case of film, the indirect presentation of the setting is usually done by someone telling us something about it.


3.10 Default Setting


By implication, a setting indicated earlier in the discourse of a story should, by default, work all through the story and discourse, unless indicated otherwise. The notion of the default setting is especially true with reference to written narratives. Narratives that depend on the visual dimension, such as cinematic narratives, can have the setting presented all through the narrative, but this is not the case with settings that are presented purely through language.


3.11 Setting and Genre: Realistic and Fantastic Settings


Setting and genre are interconnected, and this is especially evident if we are dealing with stereotypical settings (see section 3.3 above). For example, realistic settings are created by the inclusion of elements from the known world, whereas fantastic settings are based on postulations about a possible world that is in some ways different from the known world.  These settings may be related to whether the narrative itself is realistic or fantastic.  However, a fantastic story may occur in realistic settings, and vice versa.


3.12 Setting and Character


The setting may have a close connection with character. Some minor characters, for example, may form an inseparable part of the setting. Characters’ actions, or the nature of their actions, are of course determined or made possible by the setting, or what is available in the setting.  Looking at the relationship from another angle, a major character may have an influence on, or even determine the setting found in a narrative.  A major character’s movements, for example, may result in a change of setting in the narrative.  A character may also make physical alterations to a setting, or command another character to be present in a certain setting.

From a rhetorical perspective, a character may determine (or have control over) the characteristics of a setting by describing them for the reader.  However, this may result in the unreliability of the presentation of the setting: in effect, the more say a character has in describing a setting, the more chance that there is more unreliability in the presentation of the setting.  On the other hand, settings may have an influence on certain characters.  For example, in the naturalistic novel, the setting (or environment) has an influence on man.


3.13 Setting, Plot, and the Possibilities of Action in Narrative


As we have noted in the previous section, a setting delimits the possible actions in a narrative.  As such, the setting is connected to the plot, as the delimitation of actions has a part to play in the nature of the possible plot.

With reference to the relationship between setting and action mentioned above, we can further note that even chance factors may be determined by the setting.  Specifically, chance factors are plausible within a given setting; for example, traffic accidents are likely on a road; one may also say that the discovery of a bottle containing a message, although unlikely, is more plausible if it occurs by the beach.  Some writers or producers of narrative try to exploit the nature of chance factors by making them occur in unlikely settings, thus making them even more surprising; for example, a car crashing into a restaurant which is not located next to a road.


3.14 Setting and Theme


Setting is, in varying degrees, connected to the theme of the narrative. The setting – for example, the classroom and office settings in a movie or television series –  may give rise to the possible themes of a story.  The setting may also be part of the theme of the story itself; for example, the moors in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights or Egdon Heath in Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native.


3.15 Setting and the Story World


We have seen in an earlier section in this chapter that settings can be fantastic or realistic. A fantastic setting is further away from the world that we know, whereas a realistic setting is closer. However, this does not mean that a realistic setting is exactly equivalent to the world we know, or, for that matter, it may not be exactly equivalent to the world known by anyone. Even more fundamental than whether the setting is fantastic or realistic, is its significant contribution to the story world found in the narrative. The story world determines what is true or untrue in the narrative; it is hence important in determining the meaning and semantics of the narrative, and usually overrides the simple classification of the narrative as fantastic or realistic. The story world is related to one of the senses of the term diegesis: the time-space continuum of the narrative; its adjective diegetic is used to describe whether an element found in a text can be found in the story world.