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The Importance of Setting
Understanding a story depends on several skills and knowledge sets, not the least of which is interpreting the setting. While it may sometimes seem an incidental detail, secondary to characters and plot, the setting is the most basic element to a story and affects everything else. It influences what types of characters are involved and what their personalities are like. It can also limit the range of possible plots and scenes. With that in mind, what follows is a mini lesson on the setting of a story, meant to teach students about the importance of setting and help them practice its analysis. This three-day lesson can easily be adapted to a variety of ages, but is best suited to late junior high and early high school grade levels.
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The first thing you’ll need to do for this mini lesson is explain the concept of "setting." How much detail you go into will depend on the age of the students, but here are some general ideas to cover. The most important thing is to use examples while explaining these concepts—the more specific the better. Draw from recent movies and books to provide examples of such diverse settings as the future, the past, America, Japan, an alternate world, etc. Give yourself at least one class period for this part, so there will be time to watch/read the examples and reflect on them.
Definition: Simply put, the setting is the "where" and "when" of a story. It describes where the story takes place, whether it’s in France, in a small town in Idaho, under the ocean, or on another planet. It also tells you when the story takes place. This could be the distant future or past, the modern age, or something as specific as Tuesday the 22nd at 3 pm. Season is also important—a story set in the spring has a different feel from one set in the winter. Culture can have a similar impact. (Imagine a story set in a very religious community vs. one set in a region where religion is forbidden). It's important that students understand "when" and "where" is meant in a very general sense, encompassing all these elements.
Purpose: The setting is there to provide a world for the characters to move around in and interact with. It affects their lives and the events they live through. In some cases the characters may even affect the setting (such as by building a new town or planting a garden).
More than this, however, the setting is a device used by an author to reinforce certain elements in a story. A tale about death or sickness might take place in winter or in a barren desert, and a war-time setting allows the author to explore themes such as violence, sacrifice, and bravery. A coming-of-age tale is quite different in a small town than in a large city, and suggests different struggles and plot points. Stories set in the future often serve as cautionary tales, warning what the world will be like in decades or centuries if certain issues (pollution, nuclear weapons) aren’t addressed today.
Students tend to shy away from “over-analyzing” this way, but assure them that in this case it's perfectly fine. Authors create particular settings for a reason, and the students can think of themselves as sleuths trying to uncover that reason. Don't go into too much detail about the effects of the setting on the plot just yet, though—save that for day 2 when the students have a firm grasp of the concept of setting.
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On the second day, when the students are showing a good grasp of what setting is and what it's not, you’ll want to cover the various ways you can use information about the setting to understand a story and predict what will happen. Three areas to focus on are characters, plots and conflicts, and themes. Again, examples are key. It might even help to show more movie clips or read brief snippets of stories during this part of the lesson, so students can practice analyzing stories in real-time.
Characters: Where a character lives affects who he or she is. This is true both for physical and psychological traits. If the story is set in Africa, the main character is likely to be African (though if she isn’t, that suggests something about the story as well). A boy from a rich suburban neighborhood might be expected to show a sense of entitlement, and a girl from a harsh environment might display hardiness and might also be stronger/tougher than your average female. The setting doesn’t necessarily limit who the characters can be, but it suggests logical character types. Explain to the students that the characters don't always fit the setting, but they usually match it in some way and if they don't there is usually a reason.
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Plot and Themes
Plot and Conflicts: A good writer always sets a story in a particular time and place for a reason. If the protagonists live in the wilderness or find themselves lost in one, survival is likely to be a major plot point. If the protagonist travels to a foreign country, the plot will likely revolve around or at least address the difficulties and rewards inherent in learning to understand a new culture. Similarly, the setting also suggests what conflicts will arise, whether that conflict stems from a nearby volcano, an intolerant society, or the challenges of living on a small farm in the winter. Again, encourage students to think of themselves as sleuths. Why did the author choose this setting to go with this plot? In what ways do the conflicts in the story follow logically from his/her choice of setting?
Themes: Writers often use their settings to reinforce particular themes. Stories about racism are often set in the past, during the civil rights movement or when slavery was still widespread. As well as the perils of ignoring the environment, stories set in the future also suggest themes such as technological advancement, overpopulation, and science vs. religion. Summer and winter settings suggest very different moods, as do rural and urban settings. Some writers might also experiment with pairing unusual themes and settings to see what happens—imagine a story about rebirth set in the dead of winter. This part of the mini lesson on the setting of a story really needs to be scaled to the age of the students. Pick themes and examples they can understand and are already familiar with, so they can focus on the impact of the setting and not on trying to grasp difficult concepts.
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Practicing Setting Analysis
It’s hard to understand just how much the setting affects a story until you see it in action. On the third day, then (or whenever you've decided the students are showing good understanding of all the above ideas), give them some hands-on practice. The following two activities let students practice their critical thinking skills and gain confidence with setting-related terminology. You can try one or both, depending on the time you have available. If you do both, it would be best to complete them in the following order.
Analyze a Pre-Existing Story: Use a book, movie, or short story to reinforce the concept of setting and its importance. After reading the book or viewing the movie (you can use something you've already read to save time, or stick with a short story), ask students to identify the setting. Prompt them to provide as much detail as possible. Then discuss the ways in which the setting impacted the characters and shaped the plot. What themes were explored, and how did the setting match (or not match) those themes? How would the story have been different if it were set in another time and place? Make this a large class discussion, so students can bounce their ideas off each other and you are able to react directly and immediately to their ideas.
Provide an Isolated Setting: Describe the setting of a story (preferably a story that doesn’t actually exist). Just give the details of where and when—don’t include anything about the characters or plot. For example:
"The main character lives in the coldest part of Alaska, in a town of 500 people that is miles from any other town or city. It is the beginning of spring in the year 2050."
Ask the students to describe the other important elements of the story. Who is the main character? What are the major plot points? What themes might the writer explore? Encourage creative answers and speculation. The idea isn’t to come up with a “right answer,” but to experience first-hand how even the most basic details about a story’s setting can shape the story itself. You can do this as a large class discussion as well.
Alternately, break the students into groups and give each group a separate setting, and have them discuss and take notes on their story decisions. Then have them report orally back to the class at large, and make sure to get the rest of the class's reaction to each presentation. These small-group presentations would be ideal as a post-lesson evaluation, either informally or for a grade, if you want to assess their understanding of the topic.
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Setting isn’t something best confined to a single lesson and then never brought up again. As one of the central elements of a story, it deserves to be mentioned and analyzed every time your class reads a new book or short story or watches a new film. This mini lesson on the setting of a story is only a starting-point, hopefully providing a basis for many more class discussions on time and place and their effects on plots and characters.