On the importance of setting (Forks, Washington Edition)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Like many children, when I was in elementary school I learned the five basic elements of fiction: setting, characters, plot, theme, and conflict. In every English class I've taken (or taught) since then, I've spent considerable time discussing plot and character development and analyzing themes and sources of conflict, but for some reason setting almost always gets neglected. Perhaps because setting so often gets dismissed as "description" (all those paragraphs describing rooms, building exteriors, tropical sunsets, rainstorms), we feel like there is less to talk about when it comes to setting. Take The Tempest, for example. How interesting is it to talk about Prospero's island, about which we have only a few competing descriptions, when you can talk about the colonization of the island and the enslavement of Caliban, the representation of slavery and savagery, Gonzalo's idea of utopia, the development of Prospero's character, and the role of the Miranda/Ferdinand love plot. Even the structure of the play makes for more interesting discussion than setting, right?

I use The Tempest as an example only because it was the last text I taught in my World Lit I class this semester. And although we did talk about how the setting of the play might have been portrayed on stage (How does one create a deadly tempest and shipwreck on the early seventeenth-century stage?), we didn't give a lot of thought to the choice of setting itself or the importance of the descriptions. We discussed all the topics I've listed above, and we talked about what we can infer about the individual characters based on how they describe the island, but we didn't talk about the setting alone. That, of course, was a failure on my part, but I don't think I'm the only teacher who neglects setting more frequently than I focus on it. And that is something I mean to correct, not only in my teaching, but also in my writing.

Think about it. How important is setting to your favorite stories and novels? Essential, if your favorites are anything like mine. For me, what makes a story stand above the rest is something I abstractly think of as "color." And that color typically comes not from any particular type of character or plot line, but from setting. Alice in Wonderland. The Catcher in the Rye. The God of Small Things. Midnight's Children. The Blind Assassin. The Forgotten Garden. Harry Potter. In all my years of reading, these are some of the stories that I've loved the most, and for many different reasons. I love the clever wit and absurdity of Alice, the angst and voice of Catcher, the beautiful language and artful structure of TGST, the magical realism and postmodernity of MC, the structure and framework of Assassin, the mixture of history and fairy tale in FG, and the suspense and creative attention to detail in Harry Potter. Many of these stories have something in common (TGST and MC are both by Indian authors, Assassin and FG both incorporate a novel within the novel), but for the most part they are all very different kinds of stories. So what unites them? What makes them stand out above the thousands and thousands of other books I've read?

Setting. All of these stories are set in worlds that are so carefully crafted, so artfully drawn, that I become completely immersed in them. They are created in such a way that I have trouble reconciling the knowledge that I've never actually been to Wonderland; to Kerala, India; to Cornwall; to Hogwarts--because in my imagination, (which often feels just as real and maybe even more real than reality), I have been to all of these places. And when I was growing up, that's all I really wanted out of a story--to escape to a different place, to become a part of a world outside my own.

Last month, as part of my Great Pacific Northwest Tour, I found myself in Forks, Washington. Yes, that Forks, Washington, of Twilight-fame. It wasn't that I intentionally went to see the town that Twilight made famous, but passing through Forks is unavoidable if you are traveling Hwy. 101 around Olympic National Park. And Hwy. 101 is the only way around the park. So about an hour and a half after leaving Seattle and crossing over to the Olympic peninsula on the Kingston/Edmond ferry, we drove through Port Angeles, also of Twilight fame, and it looked nothing like I imagined. Granted, my mental image of Port Angeles had been influenced more by its movie representation than its book representation, but still... I was disappointed.

After taking about two thousand pictures of Lake Crescent and taking three thousand more of the rain forest on the hike to Marymere Falls, we arrived in Forks around 1:00--lunch time. Of course, we stopped to take the obligatory picture in front of the town welcome sign, which would have felt really dorky only there were other people doing it and the town has made a place for people to pull off the road to do this, so it's obviously encouraged.

There aren't a lot of places to eat in Forks (no fast food places or chains), so we ended up at Forks Coffee Shop, which is basically a stand-alone diner at the end of the downtown strip. The main strip has been overrun with stores selling Twilight memorabilia and tours, which made me simultaneously sad and happy for the people of Forks. I'm sure they get really tired of Twilight mania (and trust me, half the people I saw that day were vacationing Twihards--some were really obvious, but we made a game out of guessing who were the Twihards, locals, and regular hikers/vacationers), but it's also got to be doing wonders for the local economy. And judging from what I saw of the town, I'm sure they need the economic boost. (With our current economy, don't we all?)

After an unexceptional lunch, we went across the street to Forks Outfitters, a combination outdoor supply store, clothing store, and grocery store--think a more woodsy, small town version of Wal-Mart. This is where we got sucked into at least a half-hour's worth of shopping for Twihard family and friends, buying Forks hoodies and magnets and water bottles. (Now I kind of wish I'd gotten myself a magnet, but at the time I was feeling far too superior to the Twihards to make the purchase. Silly me.)

We had some time when we finished shopping, so I decided we might as well make this a full-fledged Twi-vaganza and go down to La Push, see if we could spot Jacob Black. ;-) The people of La Push have really embraced this whole Twilight phenomenon, so we were greeted upon entering the reservation with this sign:

And then we passed Jacob Black's house, which was so eerily like his house in the book and movie:

There was a shed/garage on the other side of the house like the one Jacob repairs the motorcycles in, and the house's genius owners leaned "Jacob's" motorcycle against the mailbox. I have no idea if Stephenie Meyer saw this house before she wrote what Jacob's house looked like, but whether she did or not, it was so strange to see the house brought to life in this way, to see it exactly as I imagined it but out in the "real world." 

As we continued toward La Push, the landscape became less recognizable because it's really suffered from the logging industry.  Whole sections of forest and hillsides have been completely cleared, so the landscape looks far bleaker and emptier than it's portrayed in the books and movies. (Stephenie Meyer commented on this herself after her first trip to Forks, after at least the first book had been written.) 

My whole point in going to La Push, though, was to see the beach, which isn't something you can just drive to. We arrived at the Third Beach trailhead first, but it was a bit longer than I wanted to hike (we were still planning on hiking in the Hoh Rain Forest and seeing Ruby Beach that afternoon before driving back to Seattle that night), so we drove to the Second Beach trailhead instead. After an extremely muddy hike, we finally arrived at the beach and found ourselves with just a handful of Twihards and backpackers.

The beaches in the Olympic Peninsula are so different from any I've ever seen before: covered in driftwood, surrounded by islands of rock and pine-topped cliffs. But it was here that I finally felt like I had entered the Twilight realm.

After we left La Push and Forks and ventured south to the Hoh Rain Forest, which looks every bit like the forests from Twilight, I started to think more about what I had seen and to appreciate Meyer's choice of setting even more. Critics have questioned how such an ordinary, plain girl (Bella) could attract so much attention from the local boys. But that day I understood. I understood why any sort of change, any new person, would have made such a difference in that small, dreary town. (Meyer says this herself, but once you see Forks, you believe it.) I understood why a girl like Bella would become obsessed with someone like Edward Cullen, why she would also be drawn to the rocky shores of La Push. I could feel how oppressive it must feel to be a teenager in Forks, to be so isolated from everything. I grew up in a small town, hating every minute of it and longing for adventure, for escape, and Forks is so much more isolated than even where I grew up. (Remember: One road in, one road out.) I felt that isolation, that desperation, when I was reading the books, but after touring Forks, I felt like I understood it on another level.  

I tell you this anecdote to emphasize the importance of setting. What would Twilight be without Forks? What would The Catcher in the Rye be without New York? What would Wuthering Heights be without the English moors, or Pride & Prejudice be without the countryside? They wouldn't be nearly as good. So maybe we should start talking about setting a little more, in what we read and in what we write. Maybe it's time to recognize that setting isn't a second class citizen to plot and characterization, but it's just as important, and maybe in some cases (dare I say it?) even more important. So tonight, instead of writing another character sketch or revising your novel outline, draw a floor plan or a map. Sketch a building. Look at pictures of the place you're writing about (or similar to the place you are inventing). Work on making your descriptions more precise, creative, colorful. Your readers will thank you for it.

Olympic National Park--rain forest trail to Marymere Falls.


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