Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Creating the Right Setting for Your Novel

Don’t let your story be transplantable. Is the setting integrally woven to the plot? If not, work at making it indispensable so that you cannot just pick up the story and plop it into another location. Ground your story in a specific time and place.

Think of setting as a character. Remember, the actual characters in your book will have a specific goal, attitude and (perhaps) history with regard to their environment just as they would for any other character. Let them express this in the way they respond to situations and other actual characters within that setting.

For example, if your protagonist visits the beach and this brings back memories of the time when he was ten and his brother drowned at the lake, or his experience playing beach volleyball in college, or a sense of peace, all of this will affect his actions, mood and demeanor.

So, ask yourself, “How does the setting make the characters feel? How does the setting affect the psychology of the characters? How do they interact with it? What annoys the characters about this environment? What gets in the way of them reaching his goals? What disadvantages does it cause them? What assets does it provide?” Show each person’s response to it. Give all of them an active relationship and attitude about each location.

I keep these questions in mind when I write:
  • Is the relationship between the characters and the story environment clear?
  • Are the attitudes of the characters clear (or at least strongly implied)?
  • Are there ways I can reshape the story to make the setting more significant to the plot or resolution?
So, here it is in a nutshell: Treat the setting as another character and give the people in your novel an attitude toward it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why do stories matter?

Last week I was a guest blogger for The Big Thrill and the topic for the week was “Why do stories matter?” I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here as well. Enjoy.

The topic this week really got me thinking. Obviously, stories matter to us all, they help us make sense of the world, we enjoy them, we find deep meaning in them, empathy, etc… but is there more?

When I was considering all of this, I remembered watching Braveheart and how, amidst one of the battles, I’d realized that one day I will die.

Yes, obvious, I know.

But here’s the thing, the paradox of it all—I while already know I’m going to die, I don’t seem to really believe it. After all, if I did, I would live differently, worry about different things, prioritize in other ways.

In a way, the story opened my eyes to a truth I already knew. Novels use a pretend world to help us to better see the real one. And it seems to me we need constant reminding. Because we know all sorts of things that we don’t seem to believe: love conquers all, eternity is but a heartbeat away, relationships are more valuable than possessions, etc…

I know this sounds a little odd to say, but stories help us to start believing the things we already know. After a story that has deeply engaged us, we drink in life more deeply, notice the sunsets more, the laughter of children more, value relationships more. Maybe that’s why we cry at the movies even though we know the stories aren’t real. Because the truths of life and death and love and hope and romance are real and we start to resonate with that.

If a story is well-told, when we “suspend our disbelief” during it, we actually open ourselves up to finally stop suspending our disbelief in reality and—if only for a moment—-to begin to truly believe in our hearts the truths we already know in our heads.