With National Novel Writing Month just around the corner, I’m offering some posts that will be useful before and after you run your 50,000-word marathon. Here you’ll find some practical information and useful exercises to make your setting choices serve the story you want to tell.
Your setting is more than a place where characters get into mischief and (possibly) get out again. It’s easy to skimp on setting when you’re trying to get your story down—and there is nothing wrong with that. When writing the early drafts, what I call raw drafts, you want to work quickly and record your thoughts. Obviously your story has to happen somewhere, but you can tackle the finer details of where, when, for how long, and in what conflict environment once you know who does what to whom.
The setting includes geographic and political areas, but it also contains more specific places where the action takes place, like individual sites (a pond in the middle the woods), buildings (the family home on Monarch Drive), and rooms (the conference room at the law firm where a body was discovered). Each place possesses distinct qualities that you can use to create mood, reveal character, and complicate the main conflict.
Your story occurs within a time period (the Iron Age or Antebellum Period), but could be narrowed down to a single month of the year. What difference does it make? What your characters encounter in New York City in February would be different in July. The first Saturday in May in Louisville, Kentucky is different from the fourth Saturday.
When you decide on these elements, you create boundaries around your story. You still have options, but the decisions create constraints with rules that help your reader acclimate, whether you’re writing in a realistic or fantastical world. This seems obvious, but we often forget these elements when outlining the story and writing the first draft. What you choose to include or exclude can bring a story to life and become the difference between one that reads well and one that is unputdownable.
How do place and time create structure and constraints? Think about how different life was before mobile phones and computers. What about social media? Your young adult character in 1957 will not be distracted by Twitter notifications unless your story involves time travel. And speaking of travel, how do your characters get from place to place? A chase scene with a Barouche is quite different from one with a metro bus.
The accents and dialects of people who inhabit the story can reveal or support setting. Can the locals, even in a large town, identify a stranger based solely on the way he speaks? When someone drops their Rs, I often think fondly of New England, where I worked with an attorney who would drive his cah to his lar office. One thing that fascinates me about the United Kingdom is how people in cities that are relatively close speak with accents that even an outsider can differentiate. And what about words and phrases that are specific to a region? Do you say pop, soda, or coke when referring to carbonated beverages? You can also find colorful expressions in most locales, like “bless your heart” or “you can’t get there from here.”
The government and politics of your locale and time can impact your story as well. What kind of government exists? Can people openly disagree with people in power? Can women run for office or do the work they choose? Do children play and go to school, or do they work?
The choices you make create structure, and it’s best to be intentional about it. Let inspiration guide you in the beginning, but to be sure that your story works, you must assess those unconscious choices and preferences. Here are three editorial missions to help you do just that.
Your Missions for the Week
At the Story Grid certification course, one attendee mentioned that he ignores the setting and simply “‘Bob Rosses’ the bushes in later.” Other writers find the spark of their stories in a location. And it might be different every time you begin a new project. No matter your approach, be open to exploring what you don’t yet know about the setting that can make your story stronger. Here are three exercises (similar to the podcast editorial missions) to help you with the inquiries.
1. Make a list of the individual settings that appear in your story: the protagonist’s bedroom and office, the villain’s lair, the quarterdeck of HMS Victory. Now spend ten to fifteen minutes freewriting about each location. Don’t know where to start? Write everything I know about … and keep going without stopping to revise. Your aim is to get to know the parts of your setting you may have overlooked. Then for a twist, try everything I don’t know about … to approach the problem from a different angle.
Put your results away for a day or two and then review. Any surprises? Did you discover additional details that you can add to your story to make the setting richer? Do you have a better understanding of why your main character loves the hand-me-down furniture in the living room of her chic apartment? If your results were lackluster, try writing for a longer period of time. Play music that reminds you of your setting. Inhabit the world your characters do so that what you see in your mind’s eye makes it onto the page.
Now, take the fruits of your efforts and weave them into your existing story.
Imagine that you can scoop up the story from your chosen setting and deposit it in another place and time. For example, if your story takes place in London at the turn of the twentieth century, move it to the middle ages or to modern Tokyo. Of course it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. You could move your characters from San Diego, California to Portland Oregon. What if your story were transported to East Germany in November 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall came down, or the US in 2015, before the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges? Consider a variety of times and places.
How does that move affect the events of your story and the lives of your characters? How does it change the stakes involved (both public and private)? Does it change the level of conflict your protagonist would encounter? Does it change how reversible the protagonist’s choices are?
If changing the setting doesn’t have a significant impact, think about what you need to add to the setting to make it clear that the time and place hold meaning within the story.
Read through your manuscript paying particular attention to how you’ve shown the world where your story takes place. Take notes on what you find. Even if you’re not writing a series, keep a list of the decisions you’ve made, the aspects of the world you tend to focus on, and which facets you miss. In part, this is to help you with your present work in progress. But the real impact is long-term. Record your obsessions, the things you keep coming back to, and what you avoid or resist. Self-awareness will help you become a stronger writer.
Next week, I’ll share a deeper level of setting exploration and more creative exercises to help you explore your setting.
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