Posts Tagged ‘setting’

Giving Characters a Leg to Stand On

 A smile formed on Callie face at the sight of Tom. It had been so long.

“Welcome by to the land of the living,” she said.

“It’s good to be back. What have you been doing in my absence? I hope you managed to keep out of trouble.”

“Of course, what do you think?”

She willed him to take her hand, to look deeply into her eyes. There had to be something between them after all they’d been through together.view to east

Touching scene, except that it’s hard to follow in our mind’s eye because it’s not grounded. Callie and Tom are two characters floating in no particular time or space. We have trouble visualizing the interaction without supporting place.

Setting is as important as character, in fact, there are times when the setting is a character. Consider Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden. What would the story be without the image of the cottage on the cliff, or the unique house in Australia, or the attic room? And how about Jan Karon’s beloved Mitford Series? Setting is the canvas on which the characters move; it affects who they are and how they interact with one another, and sometimes it’s a life force in itself (think Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher).

Besides being a visual background for the story, setting can also provide direction and momentum for the plot. My Storm Series is set in South Russia at the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In this case, the setting is the essence of the plot. The characters act in accordance to what’s happening around them.

So setting is a grounding factor, a motivator, a character, an influence. It is also color.

When our son was in Peru some years ago, he sent us an email to describe Lima. One of his sentences still forms pictures in my mind:  “The houses looked like a kid had gone crazy with a box of crayons.”

When our son was in Peru some years ago, he sent us an email to describe Lima. One of his sentences still forms pictures in my mind:
“The houses looked like a kid had gone crazy with a box of crayons.”

Description can add depth to a story, as long as the depiction is woven in without distracting from the other elements. A novel must end up as a seamless whole.

I read a story recently—Assassin’s Trap—that left me in awe of the author’s skill at describing her settings. I could have sworn D.C. Shaftoe had visited every place she used in her remarkable story.

Here’s an article on setting from “Writer’s Digest” that may be of help to you with regard to setting:  “THE HOW OF WHERE” — THE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING IN YOUR FICTION.

The next article in this series will deal with plot, so until then, let’s work on our settings. 

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When I present a talk on novel writing, I often ask the audience for their input on the basic elements of fiction, and they come up with several immediately: plot, setting and character.

Plot, according to James Scott Bell in his excellent how-to book Plot & Structure, is:

“1. A small piece of ground, generally used for burying dead people, including writers. 2. A plan, as for designing a building or novel.”

Plot is what happens in our stories:  the beginning, the middle and the end; with a story arc that takes the reader from one part to the next with compelling situations.

Of course, every story happens somewhere, so setting is essential to story. Characters should not interact in empty space without background or props…or reality. Setting takes us from the details of a room to the description of a village, city or fantastic new universe. It’s up to us to choose the setting, as long as we make it believable and stick to the rules we set up.

When something happens (plot) somewhere (setting), there are characters who experience it or tell about it. Perhaps we choose our characters to show various levels of society or to parallel a person we know or have heard about. There are countless reasons for character choice, but a writer must know the characters intimately in order for them to appear realistic and three-dimensional.

These are the three elements most often suggested by readers. Before reading further, see if you can list a few more…

Dialogue goes hand in hand with character. A novel needs dialogue to bring it to life, and a character needs distinctive dialogue in order to be memorable and unique. In brief, dialogue has two main functions: to move the plot forward and to reveal character.

Another element is point of view. Through whose eyes will we be telling the story? Will there be more than one viewpoint? Will it be first person (“I have always loved the colour red”) or third person (“She had always loved the colour red”)? The choice is up to us, but consistency is essential.

Another facet of novel building is voice. What’s the difference between voice and style? Check out the explanation on my blog: https://janicedick.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/its-who-you-are/.

It’s also important to include literary features in our writing. Similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia and other such features give visual quality and richness to our work. We need to delve into the beauty of crafting words into phrases, sentences, paragraphs and scenes that will impact our readers.

Another aspect of crafting a novel is what I call PUG: punctuation, usage and grammar.  Check out English Grammar on Facebook at http://www.englishgrammar.org/or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrammarUpdates. If we want our manuscripts to make it to an editor’s desk, we must make sure we’ve done all the necessary work. If you aren’t a grammar guru, find someone who is.

I write historical novels, so research is the foundation to a credible story, but research is important in any and every story. If our details are accurate, then the reader can trust our content as well.

And don’t forget the polish. Every manuscript must be carefully and conscientiously checked for everything from the flow of the writing to PUG to the correct meaning of words (or their connotations) to the amount of white space on the page.

This is a summary of the various aspects of crafting a novel. In subsequent blogs I will expand on these features. Until then, happy writing.

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