Category Archives for "A Novel Idea, Part 3 – Setting"

A Novel Idea – Setting

Books written in the 19th and early 20th Century often had extensive description of setting at the beginning of the story, sometimes before the plot was introduced. Today’s readers tend to leave such tomes on dusty shelves, instead choosing novels and short stories of all genres that blend description seamlessly into the unfolding of the story.  The “hook” that engages a reader will not be the way a pond looks early in the morning from the front porch. So, don’t waste your first page on it.

However, setting is still just as important as it was to the 19th Century reader. Before weaving the tale, the writer needs to understand the place it happens, the age and culture. Time of day and weather will also add dimension to the story. It may be helpful to map out the plot with setting details. Storyboarding is a good technique for this as it will help you “see” the story before actually writing it.

Storyboarding is a bit like creating a comic strip, with the general outline of events. It shows mood and environment. It is difficult to say which should come first, setting, character, or plot. You have to have a bit of an idea about all three to proceed very far. As you are writing, you may wish to change one aspect and rewrite it, to make sense of your story. Stories do evolve in the writing, so don’t be afraid of that! But we need to begin somewhere.

Is your story a mystery or horror story? The setting should reflect the mood you want to create. Perhaps a deserted house, a dark woods or deep pond with strange noises coming from it. Things are out of place or not as they should be. Show the reader what seems wrong instead of telling them something seems wrong, using your descriptions and the character’s reaction (widened eyes or turning suddenly pale, etc.). Use changes in the setting to build suspense and set the mood for what is coming. Sometimes a tense setting can lead to comic relief if you find the thing you feared was really a cat whose head got stuck in a can and is bumping into the wall.

Perhaps you want to set your story for a romance or adventure. The setting will create an expectation from the reader, building the mood. Like violins in an orchestra, the setting will not draw attention to itself, distracting from the story, but support the whole by giving fullness and support to the players.  It is important to note that the actual time and place do not have to be mentioned in the first paragraphs of the story. We can meet the main character first and discover his problem, then find as he begins his journey, whether he is poor or rich, in his hometown or traveling abroad, and what era he lives in. These details can be mentioned in passing to help create the picture in the reader’s eye.

“Show me don’t tell me.”  You will often hear this quote used in creative writing instruction, and rightly so.  “It began to rain hard.” only tells me the weather.

Take the rain experience through your five senses. What does it sound like? Is it like the erratic tapping of fingers on the table or a soft rhythmic drumming that soothes you to sleep?  Does it smell like clean grass or does the dampness bring out the smell of old books (musty)? Is it washing away dirt or creating mud? Does the rain surprise you with a cold smack on the face or perhaps it’s a welcome, cool mist after a heated argument – as you breathe in peace and sweet silence?  Maybe it whips against you driving you to the next destination of the story, or causes you to pull over on the road, after nearly hitting another car.  Here is an example of adding setting to action, and showing instead of telling.

      “I can’t see!” she cried as the semi passed –  too close – spraying her overworked wipers with another wave. Marilyn gripped the wheel tightly, heart pounding with the torrent as her tires lifted from the pavement, sliding toward the ditch.

Look through some of your favorite stories. How do they use setting to set a mood? How does it enhance the action or bring out another aspect of the character’s personality?

What if you could change the setting of a familiar story? Would it necessarily change the actions of the characters? It certainly could! Some characters do not fit easily into certain settings. It is possible, though. Sherlock Holmes seems to belong in an atmosphere of tension and suspense, in London, England. But what if he was at a children’s party with clowns? That could actually be quite terrifying to a man who seems so in control, all the time.

What if Hansel and Gretel lived in Maine, by the ocean and ran away to sea instead of into the woods? Why not try to experiment with a story you know well, and play with the setting. The possibilities are endless!

When thinking about setting, answer the following questions, not just for the beginning of the story, but each “scene.”

1. What era does this take place?
2. What time of year?
3. What is the exact location?
4. Time of day – or range of times.
5. Economic/status situation the character finds himself/herself in.
6. Weather conditions
7. Is this scene happening now, or is it a flashback? (Since flashbacks are a memory, it will only contain the images seen by the character having it. It may have a different perspective than someone else who was also there.)

In my next post, I’ll deal with the creation of main and supporting characters.

A Novel Idea – Introduction to Creative Writing

As we begin, we meet in the middle.

Have you thought about writing a book or short story? Stories represent a snippet of life taken from the most interesting or meaningful moments. But if you have ever tried to sit down to write “the Great American Novel,” or a short story and found yourself staring at an empty page, not knowing how to begin, try beginning in the middle. Something devastating or exciting has just occurred or is happening as we meet our hero. In the modern story, the reader needs to be drawn in by the first page, or you have lost them. So, compel them to continue!

Each character we meet has a past. As we meet them, we don’t know what that is yet or what motivates them to behave as they do. Learning about the heart and mind of your characters is part of what drives the story.  Besides their individual histories, the situation they find themselves in when the tale begins is the hook, line, and sinker to reel in your audience.  A crisis or difficulty presents itself that they must overcome. The crisis may be internal or external. The enemy might be a force from without, or “inner demons.” As the plot unwinds we discover these personalities as they interact to either cause trouble or overcome it.

The best stories are described well by sidekick, Sam Gamgee, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers.  “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”

What elements do we need to create such a story? Below is a brief overview of the essential ingredients in a great tale. Each will be covered at length, in future posts.

1.  Genre
The genre ( the type of story) you choose to write will greatly influence your setting, your plot and your character development. Will you choose historical or science fiction, action, drama, or mystery?  And as a subset of those, will it be a romance, a coming-of-age story, or an epic, heroic tale? There are more choices than these, of course – but it should get you thinking about how you want to relate your story. Once you decide the genre, you will need to determine the “voice.”  Will you speak as a narrator who sees all and knows all, or as one of the people in the story – telling your own tale? Will you speak objectively in the third person about something that happened to others or tells the tale as it is happening (present tense) or as a series of past events? Try each of these and see which may fit better for your purposes.

2.  Setting
This includes not only the location and a description of our opening scene, but the year/month/time of day, atmosphere (not merely weather but mood), and the economic, political and social situation the character finds themselves in when the story begins.

3.  Plot
The sequence of events in our tale is what makes the plot – which is not necessarily chronological. As the story unfolds it may revert to a back-story about a particular character somewhere along the narrative to give us greater understanding or context. The plot includes the situation the character finds themselves in, their problem, and the steps they take to resolve it. The plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. The plot of the story may be over a period of hours, days or years. Of course, the more pages you write, the more detail you can have to your plot and the more time you can easily cover. But a greater number of words do not necessarily make a better tale. As Mary Poppins used to say, “Enough is as good as a feast.” We do not want to become tiresome in the telling! The pace of the story and need for detail will depend in part on the genre.

THE PLOT involves:
a. The Problem
b. The Plan to overcome the problem
c. The Predicament: Things get worse before they get better.
d. The Pinnacle: The problem is overcome!
e. The Peaceful Resolution – a satisfactory tying up of loose ends (unless of course, you are writing a sequel).

Each of these aspects will be examined in detail in a future post.

4. Character Development
We must care enough about our main character to be rooting for them throughout the story and cheer for them as they overcome their struggle! Creating a realistic character involves a working knowledge of them – as if they were real people to you. They can be based on living people that you know or have heard about, or you may make them up entirely from your imagination, or even create a new character as a mixture of aspects of a few people. Characters can even be elements that are not physical. Inner “voices,” memories of people that are no longer around or internal fears can become as much of a character as one represented with a name. “Tell-Tale Heart,” a short story by Edgar Alan Poe, is a good example of this. Because the story is a horror tale, the ending is not a happy one and the voice that haunts the main character defeats him in the end.

Each aspect of the character needs to be explored. This is done by creating character sketches, which will be explained in a future post.

5. Dialogue
Conversations may be within the heart of the main character or between two or more individuals. You may also choose to speak directly to the reader of your story. Whatever you decide to do, you must be consistent throughout. The setting, the culture, the age, and the genre will all affect how characters speak to one another. More details and options on how to do this effectively will follow.

6. Theme
This is optional. Not all stories have a message but all stories come from a certain world-view. The theme is a deeper truth that is relayed through the telling of the story. Stories can have a world-changing effect, convincing the reader or even a nation, to change their beliefs or behaviors. The abolitionist movement during the Civil War was spurred on by a little book called, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  Have you ever read a book that profoundly influenced what you thought about a subject or changed your life? The great books will move our hearts and the best ones change us forever, for the better. What books have most influenced you? What kind of influence would you like to have on the world, through your writing?

There is no better time to begin!