Rail yard background, from the Library of Congress


A Hypertext Resource for Literature

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Place and Time


The setting of a work of fiction is, roughly speaking, the context surrounding the characters. It includes the physical environment, the time period, and even the emotional atmosphere of a work of fiction. Writers use settings to produce a wide variety of effects, so wide that definitions of setting such as this one tend to be general and, well, a little boring. Settings themselves, however, provide richer food for thought. When thinking about a work of fiction, look especially for settings that appear to include information that the plot does not require; the more unimportant the setting seems, the more potential you have to find interesting ways a writer has tied the setting to the more explicit action of the work.

Summary, Flashback, Slow Motion

The notion that fictional time differs from "clock time" or "real time" will surprise nobody. (The more interesting part of these terms is probably the fictionality of a stable "real time" itself; modern physics and psychology give us different reasons to see that fictionality.) Even the most "realistic" fictions will control time to emphasize certain moments while leading the reader to rush past others. For example, the TV series 24 portrays events that supposedly happen in "real time" that a digital clock occasionally registers, but the show's writers routinely portray impossibly timed sequences in order to shape the fiction effectively.

Every episode of 24 starts with a summary of the series and of the previous episode; many works of written fiction use the same device to give the reader enough information to understand the compressed time of the rest of the fiction. Shakespeare's plays generally open with secondary characters providing summary of past events. Another technique, flashback, manipulates fictional time by using a character's memory to provide details from an earlier time that inform the time of the main action. Flashback allows writers to avoid the abruptness that sometimes renders summary ineffective because a character's experience can provide an easy transition to the remembered action. A writer can also use slow motion, which term comes from camera techniques in visual media, by extending the description of a given moment to let it fill more time for the reader than it would for a character in "real time."

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