March 2, 2020 • No Comments
Why care about a story’s setting?
A lot of people think of setting description as the specific surroundings where the action occurs. “There was a red camel in the corner.” “The curtains were blue lace with tiny hearts woven into the fabric.”
This is true. Most of us learn to write this stuff when we’re in grade school. We learn to use our specific and colorful words and our imaginations and once we’ve mastered that, every writing book ever tells us these passages of prose are wrong and bad. This is also true.
Setting is way more than a blob of description.
It’s also the “big picture” where the story was set: the Wild West, the Weird West, Las Vegas in the 1930s, the Antebellum South. With that comes history, culture, and the way that society works. This is why, in my opinion, some theatre directors take a huge risk when they move Shakespeare or other stories from one time period to another. If a story is integrated into its setting, it relies on the dynamics of that world. It needs the power structure, the cultural norms, and the societal context of that world to inform it.
One reason West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) worked as a story was because Arthur Laurents transplanted a story about an Italian gang culture in the renaissance (seriously, what were the big families in the Quattrocento but gangs?) to a modern American gang culture. There are enough common elements in terms of social mores, power structure, and all the things that make action and consequence function that the rewritten story still makes sense. In this way, it’s the setting and all that goes with it that provides an important mechanism for story tension.
Think on a small, specific level (the curtains) and a global one (the Renaissance)
Setting can indicate past, present, or future on both a literal level (story time line) and an emotional one. The book Snow Falling on Cedars (David Guterson) very successfully uses contrasting settings to keep the past and present storylines separate and he makes the tension dance between them. It’s a courtroom drama about the fallout from a Japanese-American internment camp. The way he uses setting to convey mood is brilliant.
Setting is the difference between a script and a movie. It’s all the information—the colour, the history, and the context—that exists around your dialogue and your plot. It’s your costume and stage sets. It often overlaps with character and motivation. It reveals theme, point of view, culture, power dynamics, and emotion.
Setting grounds the story in a time and place and can convey mind set, culture, mood, and personality. Whether your protagonist hangs out in a historic English pub or a moonshine still in the Kentucky woods says a lot about him. For this reason it can be used for situational irony. Most common are fish out of water stories like the shows Hart of Dixie or Northern Exposure. It is a useful shorthand for establishing character.
Setting is context. Consider that readers may not understand the setting of your story, even if they know the city. Think of the difference between The Gangs of New York and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. With a global market for readers, you especially have to explain it to them because other people from other backgrounds or cultures may have no understanding of your story world, even if it is set in modern times.
September 23, 2019 • No Comments
Most of us experience procrastination at some point in our lives. I’m guilty of some very late night submissions, study blitzes, and (ahem) blog posts that barely slide under the wire. But rather than focus on the less attractive aspects of dilly-dallying, why not embrace the creative potential? Don’t settle for any old delay—go for the procrastination gold!
June 6, 2019 • No Comments
So far, at least, there is no online reservation system for me to book a B&B in my story world. This makes literal boots-on-the-ground research impossible. So—now what? For anyone writing outside their own experience, this is a genuine problem. How do you get real intel on places you can’t go or don’t even exist?
Advice on world-building abounds. Maps, naming conventions, operating codes, and heraldry are all legitimate reference points. My only quibble is that, while they provide valuable detail, they don’t necessarily grab a reader’s heart and soul. Despite the excruciating care writers take with constructing the subjunctive in their new Elvish dialect, most readers skate by that stuff until they reach Rabid Fan territory. What they do remember is the character’s joys and sorrows, because that’s something they can participate in right away. When a character is tossed in a dungeon, their despair, their horror of rats, and the dank stink are more memorable than the name of the prison and where it is located, although that info has its role, too. In other words, worry more about creating an emotional and sensory response and sprinkle in fine detail once you’ve nailed the drama.
This approach makes research somewhat easier because equivalent experience might be available. Got a desert planet? Go find a desert. Need alternate Victorian England? Well, there are bits of the original left, if you squint past the traffic. Castles? Yup, and a person can even sleep in one. Travel is best. Museums can help. Anything that duplicates aspects of your story location will do. The object of the game is to find your imaginary world in the one already around you and to answer the question, “What would my character actually experience if…”
While you’re making the rounds, keep a journal and pay attention to everything. High mountain air feels different than sea level. Dirt isn’t all black. Water tastes different from one city to the next. The sound in an ancient stone building carries differently than in a modern house. Observe and select the most telling details about a place, and this will create an experience that is concrete to your reader. That’s when they say, “I feel like I’ve been there.” Best of all, that’s when they wish to go back.
The same goes for the character’s emotional response to the world around them. Once upon a time, I took a gondola up to a mountain top and discovered to my horror that it was a literal mountaintop with no handrails, no fences, nothing. As I’m terrified of heights, my emotional response was—um—acute, especially when another tourist missed his footing and suddenly slid down the mountainside (he was okay). But the mountain scene I wrote afterward was razor sharp because my emotions were so strong at that moment. How does a character feel about their surroundings? Chances are, those same emotions are somewhere inside the writer. Take the narrative out of the head and put it in the gut.
Once a story world is full of vivid detail, other things to consider include demographics, the economy, transportation, and sanitation. There are too many books where no one seems to have a job, and yet they all have money and nice houses (where do I sign up)? It’s as if the story action occurs on a floating platform very separate from the everyday. Any location seems far more real if there is industry, immigrants and visitors from other lands, and the usual mix of old, young, rich, poor, and in-between. The research lab for the way a city works (or occasionally fails to do so) is all around us. Most historically-based industries and transportation systems have museums, books, and documentaries. Futuristic infrastructure might be based on similar principles. Throughout history, nations rise and fall because of trade profits and how they can take them away from someone else.
How does any of this impact day-to-day living for your characters? It’s the world they move through. It might be their means of survival. It might be motivation. Everyone has an opinion about their Internet provider, the bus/underground system, the price of electricity, rents, the price of groceries, and so on—not to mention industrial pollution and the environment. Providing an awareness of the everyday that is appropriate to your character makes it seem as if the world extends beyond what we see on the page. That makes readers curious, and they come back for more. In addition, because some problems are universal (the price of groceries), that makes characters relatable.
That’s not to say a fairy-tale fantasy filled with prom dresses and glass slippers isn’t okay. Gritty, bloody, darkness isn’t for everyone and despite what nitpickers say, no author’s world is wrong because it’s theirs to make and love. Medieval castles might be damp and uncomfortable in our history, but they can be sparkling and filled with unicorns someplace else—as long as I can hear the unicorns clip-clopping across the marble floors. At the same time, an understanding of the castle’s workings gives it depth. A bit of “how did they live” research will point out obvious factual pitfalls. If the medieval princess puts on her lace gown and looks in the perfectly clear looking-glass before attending a ball with a violin orchestra, I’ll buy that if I am told why and how that world has industries out of step with our own historical timelines. Do what you like but make it so real to the reader that it doesn’t pull them out of the story. Fill their senses and stir their emotions until their brains stop caring about the improbability of it all.
As a reader, we all want to believe. As an author, it’s our job to make it easy. Put down good roots as you let your imagination explore the stars.
January 16, 2019 • No Comments
How to begin a book? Book beginnings tend to go two ways with me: either out of the gate like a shot or in a dithery fashion that means I begin chapter one about twenty times, erase it, make it chapter three, erase it, then go back to whatever it was I wrote the first time.
Some people would say that the latter method results from a failure to plot and/or I didn’t understand the story well enough. This might be true. Most of storytelling is a mysterious process and though people throw theories at it, I doubt it will ever become an exact science. The story might be stalled because my tea was the wrong temperature and/or one sock was inside out. More likely is that I used up my allotted number of story beginnings early on in my writing career, since I started ten stories for every one that I finished.
Half the theorists say the story should begin in the regular, everyday world of the protagonist. The other half advocate for a major explosion. One wonders about the protagonist’s propensity for bomb-making.
The best way to connect these dots (at least some of the time) is to consider that there is exterior action (incendiary vampires, or whatever action you are proposing) and interior action (whatever character growth the protagonist will undergo). What we’re looking for to launch the story is conflict. It could be the start of the action plot (kaboom!) or it could be a high point of conflict for the interior plot (or both, if you can make them realistically coincide).
I’ll throw my advice into the mix: If in doubt, start with the interior plot, but make it a big moment. Show the character sweating so we like that person but understand how he or she desperately needs to change.
Examples of a high-conflict interior plot opening could be a fight, the character getting fired, or the character doing something else high-risk. Whatever flaw they have, demonstrate it to the max. This makes a nice bookend with the end of the novel, where you can show them reacting a different way to the same situation. That’s a straightforward demonstration that they aren’t the same person they were at the start.
Chapter one: Billy gets in a bar fight
Chapter thirty-one: Having developed people skills, Billy de-escalates a similar situation.
This is a stupid-simple example, but you get the point. There is a difference between flashy and important. Billy might win NASCAR and that might make up the bulk of the exterior plot, but it’s important on a personal level that he is a functional human being so that he stays out of jail and weds Mary-Lou.
Put another way, remember that HIGH STAKES are important to open the story, but the HIGHEST stakes are those the protagonist carries inside them. If in doubt, start your story there.