Story, where you at?

This is having to do with setting. It also has to do with two little birds and one big stone. I stumbled across a blog today, in which the author wrote about worries she had about the setting of her piece being boring. She said that her characters go from home to school to home to school to a picnic, and she feared that it was getting repetitive. Since I’ve been having a lot of thoughts about setting myself, I pounced on it. So here we are!

That’s the first birdie. The second birdie is that my response to her conundrum ties in very well with the second tip on the list (the 25), which is precision. I’ll quote it here:

2. Precision
In the study of traditional Chinese painting, the term hua long dian jing speaks to the need for precision. It translates roughly to mean, “Dot the dragon’s eye, and it comes to life.” In other words, your subject remains inert until you add the precise detail that brings it, in the reader’s mind, to life. Often when we finish a draft, we feel the piece somehow isn’t working. Our writing group says they found it dull in places, or just “didn’t get it.” The culprit is often a lack of precision—the key, specific details that bring the world of the piece alive.

Develop the habit of dedicating time to reviewing your work with precision in mind. How would that scene change if you add a sweet tang of honeysuckle to the breeze? How might this character change if you fasten the top button of his shirt? Henry James told us that writers are people “on whom nothing is lost.” The key to successfully creating or conveying worlds for our readers is painstakingly observing those worlds, and then scribbling down the precise details that tell the story.
—Jack Heffron

Setting is much the same as any aspect of your story. It’s the responsibility of the writer to bring all aspects to life in a way that is memorable, intriguing, and that ultimately immerses the reader in the story so that he or she keeps flipping those pages until his or her fingers are covered in paper cuts — and then begs for more. (Okay, that got a little bit BDSM, sorry.)

The key to bringing anything to life enough to jump off the page like Frankenstein’s monster is picking those details, those little things that add texture without distracting. Enrich without detracting. It’s all about precision, just as Jack Heffron says. (I can’t see his name without thinking of Zack Efron, and it’s giving me a wiggins.)

Plenty of books have a limited number of settings. If you think about it, most of the Harry Potter  books had exactly two: the Dursleys’ house in Little Whinging and Hogwarts. If you ponder that for a moment, you’ll find that JK Rowling did a phenomenal job in picking details that make her settings memorable. I can’t think of the Dursleys’ without picturing the parade of photos of an overweight Dudley, Harry’s cupboard under the stairs, and an entire bedroom filled with the broken and discarded toys of a disgustingly spoiled child. With a few exceptions, her books take place in one of those two places up until about book five when the house at Grimmauld Place is introduced.

The apartment I share with my fiance has a queen-sized bed for a couch. That’s the only thing I am going to tell you about it for the present. Some people have a sofa bed, but we have a bed sofa. Never mind that it’s because we can’t afford to buy a couch; it’s a quirky little detail that definitely helps you picture the place. I could spend my whole story here, focusing on the internal conflicts of a soon-to-be-married couple, and as long as I showed you some of those funny little details, the setting would transform from being a formless white-walled anyapartment into one with a bed for a couch. If I then told you that we have two little sinister plastic skulls that sit under our 32″ flatscreen, that adds to your picture. They even have a story — I decorated my high school classroom with them when I taught special ed in inner city D.C. for a year, and I told my kids they were the heads of former students who pissed me off. (“Aw, Miss, you be messin’ wit us.” “Find out for yourselves.”) Now it’s an apartment with a bed for a couch and two sinister plastic skulls that grin at each other as if they’re singing a duet — they’re all that’s left of their barbershop quartet.

Details. Precision. If I never told you anything else about this apartment, you’d know you were in for a quirky story. Those skulls might be a source of conflict — they might talk to the wife-to-be (or sing), but the husband-to-be doesn’t hear them and thinks his fiancee is nuts. (I’ve diverged from reality a bit. They don’t talk to me; this is for the sake of illustrating a point.) (Or do they?)

If instead of the skulls, I told you that we have a talking John Lennon doll complete with round-lens sunglasses and a jean jacket who perches on our turntable, eyeballing the room and occasionally letting out, “All I’m saying is to give peace a chance,” you would have a whole different picture of this setting. Depending on what tone you’re going for, choose details to fit it. Precision means finding the right details. If you’re writing a quirky story as an allegory for the sometimes awkward phase of settling in as an almost-married couple who might be a little crazy (maybe in spite of the talking skulls it’s the husband-to-be who’s nuts?), the skulls fit. If you’re writing about a couple starving musicians trying to make a life for themselves, go with John Lennon. The bed-sofa can make its home in either.

The point of all this is that it doesn’t matter how Joe Schmoe your setting seems to you as long as you can bring it to life to your reader. Even a run of the mill apartment like ours has its quirks. Apart from the bed-sofa, the skulls, and John Lennon, there is an intrepid stream of ants coming from god knows where. I was sick yesterday, and John brought me a Domino’s cup of OJ at 7 a.m., and by the time I got home from work at midnight, it was crawling in ants. Crawling. Ugh. That’s the setting of my home life. Just that is enough to give you all some pretty vivid imagery.

Happy world building!

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About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on September 15, 2011, in writing process and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I have a similar fear about boredom creeping in to my story, but I’m not sure the same remedy will apply? I am just beginning my first novel and although there are several locations and scenarios, I fear I do not have enough characters. The story centers around a single young woman. She encounters many strange and wonderful characters along her journey but she will not spend enough time with each of them in order for them to become intimately familiar to the reader. They will come and they will go.
    Any tips on how to keep her interesting? I have read all of Elizabeth Wurtzels novels and she has succeeded in keeping me engaged but I am not sure I can emanate the same style?

    • I think the same goes with characters. I assume that the strange and wonderful people she meets along her journey influence her development as a character? If so, you could choose precise details about those characters that make them stand out to the reader enough that if your protagonist reflects on them, a key word or phrase can remind the reader who that was. For instance, say she meets a withered old man with Coke-bottle glasses who plays only polkas on his accordion. Any one of those details (specifically the glasses or the accordion) can spark that recognition in the mind of the reader. It doesn’t take a dissertation on secondary characters to make them memorable — only careful choosing of detail. 🙂

      If your main character is on her own through the story for the most part, do the same with her. Pull up a stool inside her brain and watch her observe the world. Does she have a quirky turn of phrase that she uses to describe things? Does she connect seemingly disparate events or items in a witty fashion? Maybe she is someone who immediately sees the big picture when she looks at things. Get to know her. See how she reacts to things, then pick out what sets her apart, what makes her personal view unique. Even if you’re writing in third person, you can invest a reader in a solitary character without being inside her head 100% in first person. The trick is to pick out the things in her character that will intrigue a reader and forge a connection. A reader doesn’t have to connect with every single aspect of the character to keep reading, but if you can show a few of those significant details, every reader should find some aspect of your protagonist that resonates.

      On the point of style, unless you’re aiming to create a work specifically “in the style of…” a certain author, I suggest finding what works for you. It takes time to forge your own voice, but oh, it’s a sweet song when it happens. 🙂 I am confident that you can make your scenario work for you. It already sounds intriguing to me, and you only told me a few little things about it.

  2. EmmieMears,

    Thanks for the comments and pingback on this matter. Now that I think of it, many books I’ve read took place in at least two main places, but the atmosphere changed with a different room or a “scent on the air” , etc. I can get back on track now. 🙂

    • You are most welcome!

      I’ve found that when I get stuck on something like that, if I paw through my memories of how my most admired authors approached something, I find that it makes it easier for me to pick apart their process and learn from it. You can definitely change the tone and atmosphere of a place by selecting details. One rotten egg can change the scent of an entire room, and so can a few flowers. 🙂

  3. nice post. Really helpful 🙂

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