On August 15, 2014, carpelibris wrote, Anyone have the opposite problem: livening up a story that takes place on a single, rather ordinary location?
Let’s break this into two pieces, the ordinariness and the unmoving-ness of the setting and start with the first.
Pick the most boring, most blah place in your life that you can go to right now. Your assignment, as soon as I tell you to, is to take yourself there.
Right now I’m in my most boring space, a Metro North train rattling toward New York City, where I often write the blog. I’m not talking about my fellow passengers, who often aren’t dull at all, sometimes unfortunately, but the train itself: gray speckled linoleum, tan-gray walls, seats in tan-gray molded plastic with blue upholstery. The intention, I suppose, is to offend no one. The emergency exit signs are always the same, same smudged window, same handicapped and priority seating signs. Soundwise, the same automated station announcements.
But there’s this ad on the wall from Grub Hub (an online restaurant delivery service), which horrifies me: “Say hello to ordering food online, and say goodbye to saying hello into a phone.” As if that were a good thing. I like to talk to people! This would not make me happy! But it isn’t boring.
When you go to your height-of-ordinary place, write a short description of its uninteresting features. Then hunt for at least one unboring thing, maybe a discovery that surprises you. Look, listen, sniff, touch. Take your time, and when you’re finished, come back.
Go there now.
Music to accompany time passing. Imagine a beat that represents the ticking of an analog clock.
Did you discover anything? My guess is you did. Whether or not you did, you can use other factors to liven up the environment. Your character can have history in this place. One night, on my ride home, my train ran into a tree that had fallen across the tracks. No one was hurt, and I was in the second car, but I walked forward to see improbable branches and part of an actual tree trunk filling half the car.
In our story, our MC can have been injured, and there can have been fatalities. She can remember that the accident took place during a spring storm. A nest of cardinals were in the tree, and she heard silence right after the collision and then the chirping of frightened nestlings. Whenever she’s in the train at night she’s on edge.
People perceive settings differently depending on their personalities. So do our characters. For a bookworm in a library, the walls don’t exist. For a reluctant reader, who’s come for literacy tutoring, the walls may be closing in. The emotion of the character will affect how she sees her environment. We can use that perspective to create interest.
And it’s fun to show the differences in perception. Two friends, Owen and Maya, are describing the local park to Owen’s cousin, Erin, who’s visiting. Maya talks about the tennis courts, the carousel, the picnic tables where people play chess in the summer. Owen goes on and on about the café and its fifty ice cream flavors. Erin doesn’t care about any of it. What she wants to know is if kids skateboard there, and if they’re any good.
In a minute, go back to your boring place. When you get there, think about a few of your characters, three, say. What’s the first thing each one would notice? What’s the last thing? If it’s far from the cleanest spot on earth, who would be uncomfortable? Who oblivious? Same with the noise level. Use all your characters’ senses. Would each of them find the boring place boring?
Now go take a look and return.
If all else fails and our real-life dull setting stays dull, we are writing fiction; we can liven it up. Let’s suppose that our story is stuck in an ordinary dining room: oak table, eight chairs, a breakfront where the good china is kept, and a side table, pale blue walls, windows onto a small backward.
Although we could put a shrunken head on the second shelf of the breakfront and make the family dog be a werewolf who’s gotten stuck in wolf form, we don’t want to add anything that will derail our plot, so we won’t go that far. But there probably is a mood that we can heighten with the kind of artwork on the walls, the photographs on the mantel (once we give the room a fireplace). Temperature conveys mood to me, so we can fool around with that. A chilly house may depress Maya. A room that’s too warm may make Owen sleepy and Erin fidgety. Inviting cooking smells will have their own effect; burnt smells or the aroma of disinfectant a different effect. And the Bob Dylan CD that Owen’s father has put on may please some and annoy others.
Suppose our entire story has to take place in this dining room, what to do? I also discuss this topic in my post of August 29, 2012, so you may want to take a look. Be sure to check out the prompts, because they expand on what goes before. And here are some fresh thoughts:
• Concentrate on character, especially on the relationships among our characters. The setting may fall away entirely, because it’s always the same, but our characters are constantly butting against each other, forming and breaking alliances.
• Bring in fresh characters, so there’s newness.
• Visit other places in flashbacks, in the imaginations of our characters, in their dialogue.
• Connect to other places by phone, text, email, even television, if we can put a TV in our setting. Depending on genre, telepathy with people in other places might be possible, or communing with spirits, or even creating the illusion of another location.
Here are four prompts!
• Describe the dining room or any humdrum setting from the POV of Owen, Maya, and Erin. Through the descriptions, give the reader insight into each personality.
• The world outside this dining room is unsafe. You decide how and why. Our three MCs have found sanctuary there and have been together for three hours when someone appears in the window, begging piteously to be let in. Write the story.
• The house this dining room is in was built by Owen’s ancestor in 1735. Something that happened (you decide what) in the dining room in 1745 reverberates through the centuries to this day. Write the original event, a scene one hundred years later, a scene shortly after World War II, and the final, contemporary scene.
• Reverse the order in the last prompt. Show the contemporary scene first and work backward. Write it so that the reader understands the meaning of the scene in present time only when she reads the earliest one.
Have fun, and save what you write!