Teaching and World-Making – Or, the Importance of Setting
So I’m finishing up my unit on short stories with my sophomores. Our last lesson has a relatively simple goal, but it gave me a lot to think about: SWBAT analyze the effects of setting on plot in short stories.
We define our terms first:
Plot = what happens (in a story, movie, play, novel…)
Setting = when and where the plot happens (in a story, movie, play, novel…)
This is what Eudora Welty has to say:
Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…
I don’t think we often think about this potential power of place over character and action. Setting is one of the things all teachers talk about in English class, along with plot, characterization, exposition, climax, resolution, etc. But I think it is sometimes left in the background.
(Pun intended. Go back if you didn’t notice it… )
Yet Welty insists upon the importance of setting, and even that events and characters somehow depend upon it. Or, as my students had to write down in their notes: setting defines the logical possibilities and limitations of plot.
It defines what can or cannot happen in a story.
I think Southern writers have a particular sensitivity to the importance of place or setting. The setting IS the story. Think of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury. Or Katharine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (the setting is both exterior, the rural South, and interior, the wandering mind of Granny). Or Flannery O’Connor in “Revelation” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” O’Connor, largely due to her sacramental view of reality, expands the traditional notion of setting so that it transcends the physical:
The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location. (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)
I gave my kids a different example that I thought might work better for them. The reason why the Harry Potter series works so well, I believe, isn’t so much because of the plot and the characters (although of course these are important). The plot and the characters work because Rowling spends so much time in the first book carefully developing her setting, creating her place, defining the possibilities and limitations of the Muggle world and the Wizarding world.
Think about the detail given to describing Privet Drive, and Diagon Alley, and of course Hogwarts itself. Her world is magical but consistent – it has it’s own logic and it’s own rules. Indeed, really what made me read book two, and three, and all the others was this sense of wanting to return to that place. Yes, I cared about Harry – but I cared about returning to Hogwarts even more.
I think one of the very best examples – that really sets itself apart from any type of comparison to other stories – is Tolkien’s Middle Earth. What is so good about The Lord of the Rings isn’t just the wonderful characters, the stirring struggle between good and evil, the languages, the recalling of myth. Rather, it’s the fact that all of these things are at home in Middle Earth itself, – a world we believe in, and want to return to, or learn about, because it feels like our own history. I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of time when I was little just looking at the maps in the opening pages of the book.
There is Narnia, too. What we really desire, why we keep reading, is because we want to go back to that place created by Lewis. I checked every closet in my house, several times, just to be sure. “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”
I was thinking about all of this as I sat in my empty classroom during 5th hour, normally the seniors’ class. I was sitting in one of the student desks in the middle of the room. I like to sit in the student desks sometimes so I don’t get completely locked into my teacher-desk perspective. The room looks pretty different out there.
And I realized that teachers are engaged in world-making, too. We create a setting – our classrooms. And, in a way, we help define what is possible in our classrooms by creating a particular environment, unique to our personalities and our teaching style, but also hopefully open to our students’ personalities and their learning styles.
This year I have worked hard to make my classroom more accessible. Places for papers, folders, essays, are all labeled. I try to keep the space as clean and organized. This is a setting for listening and discussing and writing and reading and writing and revising and writing and writing and writing… and the classroom has to reflect that just as much as my words and actions do. My kids need to know that as soon as they walk through my door they have entered a place for learning.
I have substituted this year in many rooms where there a papers on the floor, dirty desks, and bare walls. I remember my own classroom last year – “disorganized” is a gentle way to describe it. And I think such classrooms limit the possibilities for students. Carelessness, even in the details, suggests a lack of thoughtfulness and purpose. A question I found myself unable to answer a lot last year was, “Ms. Shea, where do I put this?” “Um… I’ll just take it for now…” This year, I love when the kids don’t have to ask me that any more. They know where to go, where to put things, when to do it… setting setting setting.
To what extent does the setting affect the plot in your favorite stories… in your classroom… in your home?
If you really want some tough but tasty food for thought on setting, you should go read O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person.”