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Setting In Teen Novels, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan image

First, let’s define the term setting: Setting isn’t just a place and time. Let’s imagine that Jane Austen and Stephen King have both visited the same Georgian era house, and both felt inspired to set a scene in the attic.  In addition to the quaint sewing table and a smoky fireplace, Austen’s setting would include a rigid set of expected manners, an even more rigid English class system, and probably a whole regiment of charming rogues out to ruin the honor of vulnerable yet spunky young women. King’s setting might include a chainsaw with a bit of human hair caught in the gears, a menacing creeping mist, and a universe of bizarre magical beings just waiting for our blue collar hero to prick the membrane between our world and theirs. The place for these two writers is the same. The setting is completely different. Setting can include the history of a place, the people, the culture, the food, the dancing, the music, the assumptions of the characters, their religion, the mood, that intangible atmosphere… the list goes on. Setting is where and when and who and what and how. Setting is how it smells and sounds and feels, what it looks and tastes like. Setting is what makes the hairs rise on the back of your neck, and, if the writer does it right, setting is what transports the reader away from his/her bench in the school cafeteria to a world they want to stay in for a while.

How should setting in teen novels differ from settings rendered in adult literature? First I will tell you that there are no rules. Some YA authors like to dedicate pages upon pages to setting and, because the world is so complete and new and fascinating, the reader will stay with them, even if there’s no action dragging them along.

Some authors, and I’m one of them, prefer to use the action to communicate setting. For instance, sometimes I’ll put two characters in a room and start their conversation before I’ve described where they are, but I’ll move them through that space, and show the reader the physical setting with small brushstrokes as I move them. I’ll seat them on the swayback divan, I’ll have one of them stroke the silk upholstery as the other fingers the glass knob of an antique clock. Their voices are low at first, but increasingly loud and agitated as the conversation progresses. When one character learns of a terrible secret, I’ll have him collapse on his hands and knees on the woolen Persian carpet, where he’ll notice the smell of layers of smoke from clandestine cigarettes that has soaked into it over the years. I’ll have a third character knock on the heavy wooden door and, when he pokes his head into the room, the rusty hinge groans, and he squints into the dim light to find one friend grinning and another sobbing.

But some mixture of the two techniques is probably unavoidable. Even for an action oriented writer, it can be useful to pause the story to explain that this is a private boarding school for wealthy young men, and two years ago a freshman died during a hazing incident. Though the school was put through a grueling investigation, the death, (murder?) was never solved, at least, not to the satisfaction of Mr. and Mrs. DaVinci, the parents of the unfortunate boy. The DaVinci’s own several very lucrative business in Nevada and New Jersey, and they have investigatory methods that aren’t available to law abiding police officers.

And that, at least according to the way I think of it, was ALL setting: the history, the backgrounds of the characters, the significant events from the past, working together to create the nest wherein your story nestles.


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