The island is an ideal setting for creating a story in a social context. Like the ocean and outer space, the island is both highly abstract and completely natural. It is a miniature of the earth, a small piece of land surrounded by water. The island is, by definition, a separated place. This is why, in stories, it is the laboratory of man, a solitary paradise or hell, the place where a special world can be built and where new forms of living can be created and tested.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

The Mysterious Island book cover

We see islands in the oldest literature we know, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Prospero’s Island) to Homer’s The Odyssey (Circe’s Island) to Jason and the Golden Fleece (Lemnos, Doilones, Cius etc).

Desert islands, along with underground hideouts, are classic locales of romance, seen in stories such as Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie returned to the island setting in a later and lesser known work, Mary Rose. This was based on old Scottish legends Barrie heard as a child, in which mortals are stolen away to fairyland and return days or years later with no memory of where they have been.

Island stories often involve a shipwreck.

Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1916, Miranda from The Tempest

Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1916, Miranda from The Tempest

They also generally involve fire building.

An island without a fire is a waste of a good island.

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932

In fact, although an island setting is often also escapist, characters are not let off the hook when it comes to work. Living on an island means intensive work, in fact: Now you are completely reliant on yourself and you must grow your food from scratch. Characters often take delight in the fruits of their labour. Crusoe really enjoys his bread.

Be careful about falling into stereotypes, especially when it comes to tropical islands.

The separate, abstract quality of the island is why it is often used to depict a utopia or dystopia. And even more than the jungle, the island is the classic setting for showing the workings of evolution.

In many ways, the island has the most complex story possibilities of any natural setting. Let’s take a closer look at how to get the most out of the island world in your story. Notice that the best way to express the inherent meaning of this natural setting is through the story structure.

  • Take time in the beginning to set up the normal society and the characters’ place within it. (Need)
  • Send the characters to an island. (Desire)
  • Create a new society based on different rules and values. (Desire)
  • Make the relationship between the characters very different from what it was in the original society. (Plan)
  • Through conflict, show what works and what doesn’t. (Opponent)
  • Show characters experimenting with something new when things don’t work. (Revelation or self-revelation)

Dystopian Island Settings

  • Lord Of The Flies
  • Jurassic Park
  • Cast Away
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
  • Shutter Island
  • The Bridge To Terabithia
  • The Shipping News
  • The Martian (with a planet instead of an actual island)

Utopian Island Settings

  • Utopia by Sir Thomas More, the book which gave English the word ‘utopia’ in the first place. Unfortunately for the author, he was executed by King Henry the eighth.
  • Anne Of Green Gables/Anne Of The Island — Prince Edward Island removes Anne completely from her former life, to the point where in the classic story she suffers no PTSD (unlike in a proposed remake).
  • Robinson Crusoe — The most iconic of all island books, and an example of desert island fiction, in which a remote and ‘uncivilised’ island is used as the venue of the story and action. It has a particular attraction because it can be placed right outside the ‘real’ world and may be an image of the ideal, the unspoilt and the primit.ve It appeals directly to the sense of adventure and exploratory instinct, and to a certain atavistic nostalgia. This novel from 1719 marked the beginning of this universally popular literary genre. However, there is a good case to be made that this is a dystopian story.*
  • Treasure Island — R.L. Stevenson published this in 1883. This is probably the most popular island book ever.
  • The Lie Tree — Frances Hardinge created an apparent utopia in her award winning children’s novel.
*According to ethnologist and literary expert Susan Arndt from the University of Bayreuth … Defoe’s novel has not been properly examined. “Actually, you have to ask the question how a system of violence and enslavement could be portrayed so harmlessly,” said Arndt, whose research focuses on racism in English literature.
Geronimo Stilton: Treasure of the Emerald Eye. Any children's book set on an island with treasure and maps and pirates is probably a spoof of Treasure Island.

Geronimo Stilton: Treasure of the Emerald Eye. Any children’s book set on an island with treasure and maps and pirates is probably a spoof of Treasure Island.

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  • Five On A Treasure Island/Five On Kirrin Island Again
  • The Light Between Oceans
  • To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf — a modernist, stream-of-consciousness novel about the Ramsay family. An example of a psychological novel.
  • The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — by C.S. Lewis, part of the Narnia series.
  • The Old Man And The Sea — by Ernest Hemingway, set in Cuba and the Gulf Stream. A man against nature tale with biblical themes, about a man who tries to catch a fish.
  • Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome — the islands where the children summer are islands in a wider sense; apart from the fact their father is away they are totally shielded from news of the war.

The farm at Holly Howe had all turned into foreign country. They were quite different places now that you came to them by water from an island of your own. They were not at all what they had been when you lived htere and saw the island far away over the water. Coming back to them was almost the same thing as exploration. It was like exploring a place that you have seen in a dream, where everything is just where you expect it and yet everything is a surprise.

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932

Stories set on islands often feature a map at the beginning of the book. Geography is important.

Swallows and Amazons Map

Stories set on islands often feature significant birds.

At its most metaphorical, the island features a lone or significant tree.

ISLANDS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Tanglewood by Margaret Wild and Vivienne Goodman

Tanglewood is a tree who lives on an island far away, visited only by the wind. One day a bird shelters from the storm among its branches and a precious bond is formed. But Seagull belongs to the sky and, too soon, must leave.

Note the white space on this first page — the white space itself connotes loneliness.

Tanglewood island

Island Boy by Barbara Cooney (1988)

Barbara Cooney (August 6, 1917 – March 10, 2000) was an American writer and illustrator of 110 children’s books, published over sixty years.

Island Boy by Barbara Cooney

The story is about a pioneer couple who move to an island and populate it with six boys and six girls. This is basically an American Western story — about world building.

island-boy1

The focal character is the baby of the family, Matthais (not to be confused for Matthias). The name apparently means ‘Gift from God’. As the runt of the litter, Matthais is drawn to a lone gull, and manages to tame it somewhat. It seems to be lame, but manages to fly off.

When he grows up, Matthais goes to work at his uncle’s shipyard like all of his older brothers. (The girls are married off.)

Matthais travels the world as a cabin boy, finds a wife called Hannah and brings her back to the island where the story takes a bit of a feminist turn, and Hannah produces three daughters — the youngest of whom ‘can’t sit still inside’ — the designed ‘tomboy’ of the group. Matthais calls her his ‘little wild bird’. (You just know that childhood bird is going to be significant.) The youngest daughter is compared to a bird with her ‘flyaway hair’. When she grows up she even marries a ‘sail maker’ — the closest you can get to a human bird, I guess.

Matthais’ wife dies and Annie sends her grandson back to spend time with the grandfather every weekend. He resists the urge to sell to townsfolk moving in, building houses that they call cottages. The author’s disapproval of this development is clear. “They called themselves rusticators.” The stoic and pious nature of Matthais is underscored when he says to his older daughter, “But our wants are so few now…And this is our home.”

island boy jetty

Despite warning his grandson not to go out in the bad wind, the old man sails to the mainland, gets overturned in a storm, and drowns.

But we see the cycle of life continue when the young Matthias stands under that tree that his grandfather is buried under.

island boy tree

The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry

In our picturebook app, The Artifacts, the main character’s loneliness is depicted via island symbolism.

The Artifacts island at sea

A small planet in space does the same thing as an island at sea. In a SF story, space is metaphorically the same as an ocean.

Island in space The Artifacts

MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS

The Silent One Joy Cowley cover

The Silent One is written by one of New Zealand’s most loved children’s writers, Joy Cowley. My teacher handed it to me when I was about ten and I still remember it’s about a boy called Jonasi who is deaf. The island setting is a perfect match for the theme of isolation brought about by an inability to fully communicate with others.

In pulp fiction islands are a recurring setting.

the girl of ink and stars island

Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella Riosse dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped.
When her closest friend disappears into the island’s Forgotten Territories, she volunteers to guide the search. As a cartographer’s daughter, she’s equipped with elaborate ink maps and knowledge of the stars, and is eager to navigate the island’s forgotten heart.
But the world beyond the walls is a monster-filled wasteland – and beneath the dry rivers and smoking mountains, a legendary fire demon is stirring from its sleep. Soon, following her map, her heart and an ancient myth, Isabella discovers the true end of her journey: to save the island itself.

 

CITIES AS ISLANDS

The examples above are examples of literal islands, but a metaphorical island can be something else entirely.

It can be a city.

The skyscrapers of cities are really no more than modern manmade mountains. The streets symbolic of rivers. The gardens symbolic of that ancient image of an earthly paradise first symbolized in the Garden of Eden. And even the city itself, really no more than the symbol of an island surrounded by the vastness of the ocean of nature.

Symbolism of Place

midnight feast lightning

Scene from Midnight Feast. The weather is important to survival on an island, as it is here, in a story set in a city, starring a girl isolated from everything outside her bedroom window.