Tag Archives: setting

Developing Your Novel’s Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

Reblogged from an article first posted here in March 2012.

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Settings And Contemporary Fiction

'Dick_Sand,_A_Captain_at_Fifteen'_by_Henri_Meyer_022The classics—novels that have stood the test of time such as Pride And Prejudice, Little Women, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge Of Courage, and more—are filled with long passages of description. From Herman Melville and his detailed explanations about whaling to Emily Bronte’s report about angst-filled Heathcliff and the gloomy Wuthering Heights, readers wade throug are immersed in the time and culture of those stories.

Such long passages setting the stage for the story that is about to take place, are missing in most contemporary fiction. Can we conclude, then, that setting no longer matters in the books we write? Hardly.

Writing instructors caution against the “info dump,” long sections of description that deliver too much information for a reader to realistically absorb and retain. But if a writer withholds paragraphs of description of the setting, he must still create a picture of the world in which the story takes place.

One of the things that made the Harry Potter series so popular was the rich, imaginative setting, especially in Hogwarts, the magical school for witches and wizards. From the imaginary train platform 9 3/4 to the moving pictures in newspapers, the horseless carriages, staircases that shifted from place to place, portraits that served as guards to the different house quarters, and classes such as Potions or Defense Against The Dark Arts, the books were rich with elements unique to the world J. K. Rowling envisioned.

The Harry Potter books serve as an example that contemporary novels, not just the classics, need vivid settings. Today’s writer should conceive of worlds that are complete and detailed. But our task may be a tad harder. Rather than delivering the setting up front in long introductory chapters, or as a “time out” in the action, we must give the goods on the run. Action must go forward even while we deliver the necessary tidbits to paint the scene.

Take a look at the opening of By Darkness Hid, the Christy award winning novel by Jill Williamson:

Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic. He clutched a wooden milking pail at his side and held a flickering torch in front to light his way.

He wove between dark cottages in the outer bailey of the castle, mindful to keep his torch clear of the thatched roofs. Most of the residents of Sitna Manor still slept. Only a few of the twenty-some peasants, slaves, and strays serving Lord Nathak and Prince Gidon stirred at this hour.

In these two short paragraphs we have simple action that also delivers important description. The story is just getting started, but we already know quite a bit—basic information about one of the characters, the time of day, and something about the place. As the story unfolds, we learn there’s even more tucked into these few sentences—foreshadowing.

The key to good description today is to dribble bits of information into the action rather than coming to a full stop to deliver a laundry list of facts.

– – – – –
Adapted from an article published here January 2011.

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Do Your Homework

Harbor_Fwy_One of the reasons why writing fantasy appealed to me many years ago was because I was under the delusion that fantasy writers didn’t have to do any research. Since those days, I’ve learned that (1) fantasy writers aren’t immune to the need to do research and (2) research these days is pretty quick and easy.

As I’ve learned more about writing fiction, I’ve discovered that we all must do some measure of research. Contemporary writers, for example, need to research the places, professions, and devices they include in their stories.

Some years ago I read a novel set in the Los Angeles area–near where I live. At one point there was a car-chase scene that took the protagonist onto a freeway with which I was quite familiar. Sadly, the author didn’t paint the details anywhere near the way they actually are. As I read, I started yelling at the book: A sidewalk? There’s no sidewalk there. Pedestrians? No one who wants to keep living would walk along that freeway. And he wants us to believe there are dozens of people? Paa-leeeze!

Clearly, the inaccurate description of the area pulled me out of the story. Of course, not everyone knows the specifics about an area, but careless handling of the particulars is bound to stand out to any local residents who read the story.

The same is true of activities and events. I read another contemporary novel that featured a basketball player–a professional whose team made it to the NBA finals. The problem was, the author hadn’t done her homework, apparently, and didn’t know that the format for the finals is different from the early rounds. Consequently, the team with the best record opens the seven-game series at home for the first two games. They then move to the lower seed’s home for the next three games before returning, if necessary, to the home of the higher seed. So this author had her protagonist playing games five and six in the wrong cities.

Does it matter? For writers who want readers to immerse themselves in the fictive dream, yes, it should matter. Inaccuracies pull readers out of the story.

Mysteries, military thrillers, suspense, even contemporary romances all have similar requirements when it comes to getting the details right.

Writers of historical fiction or of history or memoirs, for that matter, have an even greater burden. They need to know the details of a place but also the details of the time period in which they’re writing if they are to avoid anachronisms. Hence, they must be sure their character actually could be listening to the radio or talking on the phone–that those things had been invented and were in common use. They must be sure that Benny Goodman had become a national figure, that cars had starters instead of cranks, that bifocals existed.

Again, some might question whether these details are important. My guess is, those who read historical fiction, and surely those who read history or memoirs, are already familiar with the time period in which the story or events are taking place. Consequently, these readers will quickly recognize mistakes. The credibility of the author is undermined with each error. The seriousness of the work comes into question.

Hard science fiction carries a similar stringent requirement. The science needs to be accurate and the futuristic suppositions tied to what already exists. Consequently, the writer needs to know about that science.

Big_Cypress_National_Preserve_swampWhich brings me back to fantasy. Aren’t the worlds pretty much all imagined? They are. And yet, a swamp must still have the properties of a swamp and a desert, those of a desert. Otherwise, there is no swamp. There’s a new thing that requires a new name with a description of its hybrid properties.

An author is absolutely free to make up a swamp in the middle of the desert–if he can make it plausible and if he is consistent with its use. Certain conditions can’t create a swamdirt, for instance, in one location and a wilderness in a different location. The conditions would have to be different and the author needs to keep track of which elements create which geological feature.

The key to good fantasy, then, is consistency. The real “research” is nothing more than keeping track of the rules of the imagined world. But that, too, my friends, is homework, and it needs to be done.

Fortunately in this age of the Internet, research is easier than ever. I’ve had a variety of magazine article assignments over the years, most on subjects with which I had little first hand knowledge. A few hours on the Internet, however, and I have learned as much or more as I might from an afternoon in the library.

Of course Internet research comes with a few cautions. First, not all information is accurate. Some is intentionally misleading if the subject is controversial–the author may be using the old tricks of indoctrination, such as the use of emotionally charged words, the exclusion of some facts, and the exaggeration of others.

Some information on the Internet is incomplete or lacking supporting data. Consequently, it might be true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

And thirdly, some Internet research uncovers facts that are flat out wrong. Perhaps the source is misinformed or ill equipped to present information on the topic.

The point is, a writer needs to verify Internet research or to check the reliability of the source. For instance, in doing research for an article about Victorian homes, I discovered a collection of sites saying much the same thing about restoration methods. The quantity served as a good check, but so did the credentials of the site writers–all owners of Victorian homes who were involved with renovations or had already completed them.

Homework. It’s the best kept secret of good writing–fiction and non-fiction. Writers who do their homework can separate themselves from the crowd.

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Developing Fresh Story Concepts

couple in love1384968-mAs most writers know, there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer, or their love conquers, and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers–cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable (until they are reconciled – 😉 ) differences.

Perhaps one character is a faery and the other a human, in a wheelchair, for example. Those are obstacles! Who would even see romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter.

But what if the couple is already married–a union of convenience or position–and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

ShrekBut now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? One idea is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty, and you have Shrek.

Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. An interesting character, quirky, engaged to someone else, perhaps single longer than most, with a family who values family and marriage above all else. Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters), and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding which turned out to be a surprising smash hit.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance look like set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history?

What would a romance look like between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter ten years after the Twin Towers attack?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”–the plot lines, characters, or settings that first present themselves when we writers start contemplating a new story.

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The Effect Of Setting On Characters

ambulanceMany writers may think the effect of a story setting upon characters is obvious. If the events unfold in a city, a character will likely act in completely different ways than if they unfold in a rural setting.

For example, a woman in her mid-sixties falls and fractures her wrist. What does her husband do? In the city, he most likely calls 9-1-1 if she’s in a great deal of pain, or drives her to a hospital emergency room. But if this happens miles and miles from any medical facility? The husband would likely have to splint the arm himself or try to make contact with the nearest medical person, who might be a midwife, not a doctor.

So yes, we understand that setting affects characters. They act differently in different settings. However, there’s more to setting than the obvious overall affect on a character’s actions. Place and time have particular nuances that can and should influence characters.

For example, the character in a novel, a young man just out of university, is planning to immigrate from France to New York. If this story is contemporary, he may happily take his leave of his family, promising to visit the following year. He may phone them from the airport upon his arrival. He may set up a regular time each week to Skype them. Although he lives in a different country across the Atlantic, he can still maintain close ties with his family.

However, if this same young man is in a story unfolding two hundred years earlier, his decision to leave his home may have a feeling of permanence. He might never see his family again. When he reaches his destination, he may post a letter back home, but it will be weeks before it arrives and weeks more before he can expect an answer. Whatever ties he had with his family will be seriously weaker now.

But there’s more. Writers need to think about what kind of person would leave home knowing he may never return, knowing he is weakening and perhaps breaking ties with his family. The setting dictates a character’s personality and development. A cautious individual or someone particularly satisfied with his situation wouldn’t think of heading off into the unknown.

Even characters with more adventurous spirits or with dissatisfaction in their present circumstances would need a reason to travel so far. What would drive a young Frenchman to take such a bold, dangerous step? Has his father disowned him? Is he escaping a failed love affair? Is he distancing himself from scandal? For example, is our hero driven from his home by a jealous husband for being too forward toward his wife?

Of course, scandal is different today than it would have been two hundred years ago, too. Our contemporary hero would certainly need a different motive for immigrating because it’s hard to imagine that a little flirting, even with a married woman, would reach the level of scandal. Clearly, setting affects a character’s motives.

The contrast between our contemporary and our nineteenth century heroes points to one more effect of setting–a character’s worldview.

PortraitdelouisfrançoisbaronlejeuneWhat would cause a Frenchman in 1813 to leave his homeland rather than fight in the Napoleonic Wars, to come to America which was embroiled in its own war with England? Does he believe in democracy and oppose the tyranny of an emperor who he thinks betrayed his own country’s fight for equality? Or is he fleeing conscription into Napoleon’s army? Undoubtedly attitudes concerning nationalism and toward war and democracy would color a character’s way of looking at the world.

The contemporary character might be more concerned with economic issues created by the recent global recession or with personal opportunities for success. He might be influenced by a fear of terrorism or by attitudes of, or toward, tolerance.

Clearly, settings play an important role in a story, particularly as they affect the characters. Yes, they dictate action, but they also influence character personality and development, motivations, and worldview.

By the way, authors of speculative fiction are not off the hook. True, they create the world in which their characters live, but those worlds must have consistent rules that govern them. Those rules, in turn, whether they involve space travel or magic, act in the same way that the real world time and place rules do.

About world building in speculative fiction, author Orson Scott Card says

The stories you tell, the world you create, will in many ways be dependent on the decisions you make about the rules of magic [or science fiction]. (Excerpt from Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, p.50)

Whether in contemporary fiction, historical, or speculative, the setting of a story has an effect on characters that goes beyond what they do and reaches why they do it, how they are changed, and how they view where they are.

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Developing The Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

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Do Settings Matter?

Writing instructors caution against the “info dump,” long sections of description that deliver too much information for a reader to realistically absorb and retain.

True, the classics are filled with just such description. From Herman Melville and his detailed explanations about whaling to Emily Bronte’s report about angst-filled Heathcliff and the gloomy Wuthering Heights, readers wade throug are immersed in the time and culture of their stories.

Not so, contemporary fiction. Can we conclude, then, that setting no longer matters in the books we write? Hardly. One of the things that made the Harry Potter series so popular was the rich, imaginative setting in Hogwarts, the magical school for witches and wizards.

Today’s writer should conceive of a vivid setting, just as the writers of old did. But our task may be a tad harder. Rather than delivering the setting up front, or as a “time out” in the action, we must give the goods on the run. Action must go forward even while we deliver the necessary tidbits to paint the scene.

Take a look at the opening of By Darkness Hid, the Christy award winning novel by Jill Williamson:

Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic. He clutched a wooden milking pail at his side and held a flickering torch in front to light his way.

He wove between dark cottages in the outer bailey of the castle, mindful to keep his torch clear of the thatched roofs. Most of the residents of Sitna Manor still slept. Only a few of the twenty-some peasants, slaves, and strays serving Lord Nathak and Prince Gidon stirred at this hour.

In these two short paragraphs we have simple action that also delivers important description. The story is just getting started, but we already know quite a bit—basic information about one of the characters, the time of day, and a feel for the place. Later we’ll learn that there’s even more tucked into these few sentences, but I’m not giving any spoilers. 😉

The key to good description today is to dribble bits of information into the action rather than coming to a full stop to deliver a laundry list of facts.

For an excellent article about world building—written for writers of speculative fiction but helpful to any fiction writer, I think—visit Speculative Faith (and if you leave a comment, you’ll be eligible to win a free copy of the author’s book).

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Good Stories, Day 3

In my opinion, good stories put the reader into the made-up world the author has created. Not literally. But as I read a good story, I feel like I am on the spot, observing, feeling what the point of view character feels. Listening to conversations. Hoping, dreaming, cheering the protagonist on.

All of which brings up other important elements of a good story, in no particular order.

Good dialogue. This is the kind of conversation that makes me feel as if I am a fly on the wall, hearing it all. Nothing pulls me away, sidetracks my thinking. Not unnecessary speaker attributions, overdone dialects, mundane comments stalling the story, language not fitting to the character who supposedly is speaking. It is crisp, provocative, indirect, necessary.

Well-defined setting. In a fantasy, this element is critical. And yet, it cannot be created with layer upon layer of information shoveled out at the beginning of every scene. Instead, the story world needs to unfold gradually, much as the characters need to come alive bit by bit. This is accomplished not so much by painting the scene in its entirety but by inserting particular details that evoke the scene in the reader’s mind.

Establishing an engaging protagonist. Again, I’ll have more to say about this when I take a closer look at characters, but I want to mention it here because I see some Christian authors losing this key element in the process of exploring multiple points of view. In my opinion, only a most extreme circumstance should cause a change of point of view character. The story should be about the main character and more often than not, in contemporary writing, this is the main point of view. This allows readers to be as nearly in the skin of the protagonist as possible. So why change?

The latest fad that really weakens character identification, in my opinion, is writing sections from the antagonist’s point of view, especially giving the antagonist motives or redeeming qualities that make him sympathetic. Sorry, but this is the guy readers want to root against. Why make him sympathetic?

Properly motivated, sure. His actions should make sense and should be the logical step he would take, given his worldview. But his worldview should not be painted as one brought on by hard times or his suffering as a child or fate. Such explanations inevitably make his actions less heinous, and consequently reduce the intensity of a reader’s desire to see him fall into the hands of Justice.

Orignially posted at A Christian Worldview of Fiction October 12, 2006.

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