The Beach As Setting In Storytelling

sea liminal space

Across all forms of storytelling, the beach functions as an  alternative, liberating space, almost a heterotopia.

The beach takes characters away from the intellectualism and emotional cynicism of the modern city. (love stories, see below.)

The beach contains hidden treasure and fantastical elements. (Paul Jennings short stories.)

The beach is a space in which characters explore their own relationships to life and death. (Katherine Mansfield short stories.)

mamamia

THE BEACH IN ROMANTIC COMEDIES

Within romantic comedy, the setting of the beach has come to function as a highly potent and privileged setting, evolving into a generic ‘magic space’ that sanctions and protects those desiring love, while allowing for certain forms of speech involving intimacy and the (sexual) self that cannot be uttered elsewhere.

Time and again, the sea functions as an alternative, liberating space away from the intellectualism and emotional cynicism of the modern city, constituting an arena where characters can find intimacy and give themselves over to love in ways impossible elsewhere.

The sea also suggests the elusiveness of everlasting love. The meaning of the sea in romantic comedy is not entirely stable. It is used to endorse romantic notions about ‘authentic’ love and natural ‘soulmates’. But that’s not all: a certain paradox is at play in the genre’s use of the shoreline, since the liminal space of the sea/beach stands simultaneously both for enduring natural wonder that will outlast each of us, and the very essence of evanescence. Always changing, never fixed, inescapably different from one day to the next, it is a reminder of the capriciousness of love and life, an expressive signifier which by its very nature reminds us of the transience of all things.

notes from the abstract of Sea of love: place, desire and the beaches of romantic comedy by Deborah Jermyn; Janet McCabe

There are also obvious connections between swimming in the water and being housed safely inside your mother’s body. Less obvious, perhaps, is the way the sea can transgressively return us to a primitive time:

In the womb we swim in salty water, sprouting residual fins and tails and rudimentary gills, turning in our little oceans, queer beasts that might yet become whales or fish or humans. We first sense the world through the fluid of our mother’s belly; we hear through the sea inside her. We speak of bodies of water, Herman Melville wrote of “the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin”.

And when we return to swim beneath that skin, our identities and stories are blurred and reinvented. Jellyfish – ancient evolutionary survivors that predate and may yet outlive us – change sex as they mature; cuttlefish and moray eels slip from one gender and back again, shape-shifting in the alien deep. Ever since we began, we have found an affinity in this mutative place and its sense of the sublime.

The Guardian

THE BEACH IN LOVE TRAGEDIES

Dear John movie poster

In case you hadn’t heard, Nicholas Sparks does not like his masterful works of art to be labelled ‘chick-lit’; he prefers the term ‘love tragedy’.

The symbolic function of the beach in a love tragedy seems to be exactly the same as it is in a romantic comedy, with emphasis on the ephemeral nature of everything, including sublime happiness.

THE BEACH AS SETTING IN GOTHIC FICTION

Traditionally, gothic settings contain old buildings, misty moors and the like.

In a young country like New Zealand there are no medieval castles. However, there is always the beach. The beaches of NZ have a haunted history which takes the place of Europe’s castles and dungeons.

The beach can therefore function as a gothic setting in its own right.

beaches gothic
image from The Piano by Jane Campion

The coast can have a binary role:

  1. offers restoration
  2. be home to all sorts of strange creatures and happenings

STORIES WHICH END AT THE BEACH

Because the beach is such a symbolic place, ending a character’s journey beside the sea is left with the audience as a proxy for so much more. Katherine Mansfield does it in “The Wind Blows“. After a long, windy day, the teenage girl main character ends up looking out at the sea.

Richard Ayoade has his main character run to the seaside and there he is joined by his problematic girlfriend. They stand in the water together.

This isn’t so dissimilar to Thelma & Louise, who end up in the canyon, but together. (The canyon was created by a body of water.)

The French Film 400 Blows also ends with the main character running to the sea. The outtake is a freeze frame of his face.

My interpretation of this rush-to-the-seaside as a story ending: The seaside is functioning similarly to how crossroads function narratively. The main character has come to the edge of a chunk of their life just as they have come to the edge of the land, things are about to change completely and the flat bed of the ocean afford them a view of the grand scheme of things. And since the sea is scary, we are left with the sense that their life from here on will include danger — storms, choppy waters and no guarantee that they will get to where they want to end up.

For an example of a (wordless) picture book featuring an ocean described as almost being a character in its own right, see Wave (파도야 놀자) by Suzy Lee (2009).

The Symbolism Of Altitude

Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.

mountains and valleys

Something weird happens when humans position ourselves in high places. High place phenomenon is that weird urge you get to jump off a bridge.

I don’t get that, exactly. I get a strange variation on that. I remember standing on a bridge one time holding a tennis ball. I wondered how hard it would be to get the tennis ball back if I dropped it. So I dropped it, entirely without meaning to. Sure enough, it was no easy job getting the tennis ball back.

In London I never liked standing at the front of the queue to get on a rush hour underground train. I always felt like I’d be pushed by the people behind me into the oncoming train and fall onto the tracks. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to push someone in front of me. But don’t worry, I never tried it. And I stay right away from trains these days.

Because there’s always the tennis ball.

HILLS AND VALLEYS

A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.

Miss Rumphius Barbara Cooney house on hill

From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Elefante by Franco Matticchio — going down into the valley
Elefante by Franco Matticchio — going down into the valley

Wolf Hollow is an interesting setting because it is an snail under the leaf setting. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.

Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?

First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.

Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.

from Treasure Island
from Treasure Island
Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson
Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson

MOUNTAINS

Where The Mountain Meets The Moon

Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.

[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.

Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.

In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her anagnorises.

  • The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
  • Greek myths about gods on Mt Olympus
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Heidi
  • Cold Mountain
  • The Shining
  • The Bears On Hemlock Mountain
  • Serena

CLIFFS

The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.

And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.

Roger Ebert’s review of The River Wild

In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).

from Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Binette Schroeder 1986
from Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Binette Schroeder 1986
house on cliff

Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.

See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.

from The Adventures of Robin Hood
from The Adventures of Robin Hood
British artist Tracy Savage draws her inspiration from the Yorkshire coastline and landscape.
Her paintings are bursting with subjects she finds fascinating, capturing the imagination with her individual & dramatic style.

Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.

a cliff scene in The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry
a cliff scene in The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry
John Frederick Tennant - Waiting for the Catch 1839
John Frederick Tennant – Waiting for the Catch 1839

For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:

  • mountains
  • high desert landscapes
  • canyons
  • buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
  • eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)

When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.

“Lookout Point” by Richard Sargent, cover art for the July 18, 1953, Saturday Evening Post

Rooftops

The manmade equivalent of a natural high place is a rooftop. Characters often experience anagnorises on rooftops, or go there to achieve an overview of a situation, and to work out a plan to achieve their desires.

Artist on the Roof (1950) From…The Amsterdam Series (1940-50’s) ~Anton Pieck~ Dutch~ Painter/Graphic Artist/Illustrator

Header painting: Louis Bosworth Hurt – A Highland Drove at Strathfillan, Perthshire 1

The Warm House Of Childhood Stories

Of all the stories you loved in childhood, which of the houses would you most like to live in? Was it, by chance, a ‘bustling’ environment? Was it quirky or intriguing or very large?

How I Live Now Sitting Room
Sitting room from the film adaptation of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
The warm but ramshackle kitchen of Gilly’s good-Christian foster mother, film adaptation of The Great Gilly Hopkins
Mary Poppins Banisters
Mary Poppins
Who Lives In This House

Writing: Creating Your Setting

creating a storyworld

Any high school English teacher will tell you, setting and character are inextricably linked.

What Is A Fictional Setting Made Of?

No matter what kind of story you’re writing, spend time creating a rich and detailed setting.

  1. PERIOD — a story’s place in time
  2. DURATION — a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours.
  3. LOCATION — a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
  4. ARENA — inside that location, there will be an ‘edge’ to your story, kind of like a computer game.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — buildings, roads, bridges, cities, villages, houses, etc
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — deserts, rivers, mountainsislands, forests, beaches, etc
  7. WEATHER — This might rely on pathetic fallacy, e.g. the character is sad so it is raining. Or sunny weather might make a sad character feel even worse.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – There may or may not be some technology which your plot will rely on. In some genres (especially science fiction) this technology will be central.
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The land which lives inside the main character. The imaginative landscape, the difference between what is real in the veridical world of the story and how a character perceives it — never exactly as it is, but rather influenced by their own preconceptions, biases, desires and personal histories. In what way are characters wrong about the veridical world of the story, and how will this be their downfall (or advantage)?

How To Make A Setting Come Alive

The Chocolate War is set in a run-down Catholic boys’ school, an inhospitable place to anyone at the bottom of the pecking order. Cormier personifies the school, turning it into an inhospitable desert landscape, though it’s only a sports field.

The wind rose, kicking puffs of dust from the football field.  The field needed seeding. The bleachers also needed attention — they sagged, peeling paint like leprosy on the benches. The shadows of the goalposts sprawled on the field like grotesque crosses.

The Chocolate War, description of a boys’ Catholic school, Robert Cormier

Cormier makes the school setting come alive by using verbs usually reserved for people (kicking), and by giving the benches a disease only humans can get (leprosy). The word ‘sprawling’ is interesting because it’s so commonly used for things as well as people that we’re used to its metaphorical use by now. Suburbs can now ‘sprawl’ and we don’t consider this an example of personification. Yet ‘sprawl’ suggests the goalposts themselves mean to seem imposing. The goalposts have zero motivation of their own — this is obviously how the character feels about the goalposts. Verbs like sprawl are really useful to writers because of their status as ‘almost metaphors’. Use these and avoid heavy-handedness.

One beautiful thing we can do with any setting is to “seed” it with emotional triggers. These triggers are symbols which are important to the protagonist in some way, influencing what he thinks, feels, and does. … These setting triggers lead to emotional decision-making and the actions that result will change the story’s trajectory.

Angela Ackerman

 Fantasy Settings

Create the world that serves your story and make no apologies or justifications for how that world came to be.

Audrey Vernick

Settings contain two versions of the a main character’s experience. The first is the veridical world of the story. The second is the main character’s experience of it, which may be fantasy (in a fantasy story) or dream sequences and similar (in a realistic story.

If you’re thinking of writing a short story with three scenes, it’s not the worst idea to scratch out a sketch of the town the story happens in, the living room where people sit and talk, the view from the windows, the traffic outside. All that is part of the story, and the more deeply you take charge of it, the more easily you keep the reader enchanted. Really bad writers don’t care about this stuff. They’re always having daring adventurers trying to get into “impregnable castles,” but then they figure the hell with it and cut to the next scene, where the hero is inside the castle. We, as “serious” artists, shouldn’t do that. If we’re going to have a dinner party for ten people, we’d better provide a dining room with ten chairs. If there are only eight chairs, there had better be two people who don’t have a place to sit down, or who don’t get invited.

Carolyn See

SEE ALSO