Thursday, February 7, 2013

Characters (and Writers) Need Great Settings

Where am I? I’m reading contest entries once again, and a common problem is amorphous setting. Minimally, the setting needs to orient us. But a setting can also be an obstacle, increase verisimilitude, set the mood, be symbolic, and tell us about the character. This last is especially important with first-person narratives, where what is noticed and how it is described can reveal much. (The protagonist in the entry I’m reading today notices everything in purple detail. Not a winner.)
Setting can make you more productive because details spark imagination. Also, a complete setting creates helpful limits. Finally, a well-defined setting will keep you from confusing the reader (and yourself). Let’s look at each of these.
Spur your imagination. The more you see, the more you can respond to artistically. Writers tend to be in the heads of their protagonists (and in their own heads in real life), but action that can be visualized and immediate happens in offices, airplanes, bedrooms, caves of wonder, and other spaces. Seeing the setting more fully and specifically gives your characters more license to get up, move around, and act. In her class on Visual Writing (a course I highly recommend), Max Adams insists on establishing space,light, and texture. I’ve found this is a great requirement for scripts and novels. For help on creating setting, check out the articles in
Create helpful limits. Sight lines, furniture, comfort, travel times, and proximity to resources (and weapons) all impact how a plot spins out. A definite, specific setting will create some possibilities and shut down others, helping to guide you through your story. More complete settings will also help you avoid some rewrites needed to support a plot turn (or make it clear what those rewrites should be).
Avoid confusion. The relationships of objects and people within spaces need to be consistent, especially when people need to be in certain places. I’ve read many amateur works where characters are inadvertently teleported to convenient locations. Or where distance between sites became elastic. I’ve created floor plans on graph paper so that I could refer to them. I’ve also sketched out maps. (Map making is often essential for fantasy and science fiction, and I found some help. ) Just as productive writers keep references on the details of characters (eye color, clothing, childhood trauma) to avoid inconsistencies and extended checks through manuscripts, many keep floor plans and maps at hand. I prefer creating the basics of these before drafting and doing any updates after drafting is complete. Creating and updating references during the drafting process cramps creativity and is akin to looping.
It’s okay to overdo setting in your draft. Make sure you have enough to put yourself into the scene. You can always pull back from the purple prose in the editing. And you should make an effort to reduce the description to the minimum in rewriting since readers are looking for dialogue and action. Don’t hold onto big paragraphs that readers will skip just because you fall in love with them.
For more on setting, check out Bigger 3 - Take Me to Monte Carlo.

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