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"Hard is not hopeless." - General David Petraeus

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Power of Setting In A Novel

The following quote is attributed to Zane Grey:

"It was Wordsworth who wrote, ‘The world is too much with us’; and if I could give the secret of my ambition as a novelist in a few words it would be contained in that quotation. My inspiration to write has always come from nature. Character and action are subordinated to setting. In all that I have done I have tried to make people see how the world is too much with them. ‘Getting and spending they lay waste their powers’, with never a breath of the free and wonderful life of the open!"

I’m no expert on psychoanalyzing Wordsworth, or Zane Grey for that matter. I just know Mr. Grey wrote my all time favorite books. This particular line of the quote resonates deeply with me:

“Character and action are subordinated to setting.”


Now I can just see all the writing experts out there getting their hackles up, ready to throw tomatoes or scoff at the insanity of that statement. How many times have I heard people argue whether character comes first or plot? But nary a mention of setting. Perhaps this is more true of the western then any other genre. I don’t read chick lit so I can’t say for sure, but something tells me the setting would be less important in the context that chick lit settings, one would assume, are fairly homogenous. But each of our western states are so unique; even regions with each state are unique – filled with their own wonders and terrible challenges (maybe chick lit writers feel that way about the different shopping malls, I don’t know). Setting is what sets westerns apart.

And I love how Mr. Grey phrases that line. “Character and action are subordinated to setting.”

In other words, character and action are under the power or authority of setting. Character and action are below setting in rank, power or importance.

That is what I strive for. Powerful settings (i.e. power of nature over character). Unfortunately, I don’t have even a thimble full of Mr. Grey’s brilliance in conveying setting in my stories. I am still at work on my first novel and indeed, in writing the first draft of it, I did not have time or ability to build in setting in the way I desired (I have a “can’t walk and chew gum at the same time” mentality in my first drafts). It is coming now with the rewrites. Even so, I doubt that I will ever achieve that mastery of setting that he had, for he took time to be part of nature, to absorb it into his very being. More then I ever will, he understood what nature demands from a person. What it gives back. How it shapes you and makes you into the person you become when you are irrevocably tied to it.

THAT is what makes a western great – people on a landscape that is much bigger then they are in every conceivable way. Yet they struggle to survive and conquer. Nature will always be the stronger, but they push on – and they grow in the process.

I read fiction to escape. And only western novels can provide the escape I need because they take me to a setting I so desperately wish I could relate to. I want to be taken away from the fripperies of modern life into a world where you can’t hide from nature by secreting yourself in a basement or a highrise; where you can’t avoid the mountain, you have to go over it.

For me, I suspect the power of setting is as strong and hypnotic a drug as romance scenes are to the romance reader. When I read Zane Grey’s novel Forlorn River, in the scene where they trap the wild horses in the lava caves – when I read about the crack of horses’ hooves on stone, the shrill whinnies of the wild horses and their rearing and plunging when they realize they are trapped; when I read about these men who not only do this because their livelihood depends on it but because of the thrill of the chase, the conquering of these magnificent animals and their love for this wild life – it just makes me shiver inside wishing I was on that ledge overlooking that cave with them.

Setting is power.

Setting makes or breaks a character.

I want to touch readers with powerful characters just like anyone in any genre. But when I have achieved the masterful use of setting, when someone says to me “Zane Grey would be proud,” you’re going to see me do a Snoopy Dance that will never end! 8-)

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