Setting Wake Up

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.

Welcome back!

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!

  1. Okay, I have two unrelated questions for anybody who can help:
    1. How can I create realistic dialogue in a story that is set long ago? That doesn't mean my characters are necessarily using "thou" and "thee" in every other sentence; they just use more complex words and longer sentences than we do nowadays. It doesn't sound good, though, the way I wrote it—it just sounds like I do horrific dialogue. Does anyone have suggestions to make the speech "relax"?
    2. How much detail is right? I'm positively enchanted with a culture I created in one of my novels. I adore the way it works and, oh, everything. But I read that you can't put in too many details that aren't relevant to the plot. These details have absolutely nothing to do with my plot, but I love them so much that I don't want to take them out. After all, aren't you supposed to charm your reader with those details, and make it seem "real"? At the same time, I'm cramming it all in because I think the reader will like them, while maybe it's slowing down the action too much. Thoughts?

    • For your second question, there are two things to remember. When considering what details to add, ask yourself: is it specific? And: is it significant? Just to clarify, significant doesn't necessarily mean it moves the plot forward. A significant detail is one that adds something to your story, whether it tells you something about the character, or adds to the mood of your setting, or reveals something about your character's emotions, etc. For example, a general detail would be describing the door on a house as old. A specific detail would mention that the wood on the door was splintering. A specific, significant detail would mention that the old, splintering wooden door seemed to sag wearily on its hinges. It's significant because it helps add to the mood of the setting. Hope this helps.

    • How long ago is this, and where? Although really, I'm not sure it matters all that much. While a lot of 19th century literature has long, complex sentences, for example, people generally don't talk the way they write. As long as you avoid anachronisms and modern slang, your reader will probably just read along with the flow.
      Although (this is a fascinating question!) People's BEHAVIOR will be different, and that will show up in their dialogue. Ex, children will be more likely to call their elders "sir" or "ma'am." And things like gender and social class will influence speech too, probably more than they do here and now.
      And if you're trying to make your narrator sound like they're from that period, that's a whole 'nother thing.
      Hope this helps. You sure gave me a lot to think about. Thanks!

    • Well, for question 1: First off, don't use contractions. It makes for more old-fashioned sounding dialogue without actually changing that much. Another thing you could do is restructure your sentences. Instead of saying "Don't you dare touch me!" Say "You dare not touch me." Instead of "Shut up, idiot boy!" say "hold your tongue you foolish child." As a rule, just change certain 'modern' words. Instead of "kid" or "kids" say "child" or "children". Instead of "idiot" say "fool" instead of "stupidity" say "folly". Use more sophisticated words and it automatically gives an old-timey feel, even if it is not exactly authentic. Also, a few things to take into account are that back then, the customs were different. Keep that in mind. Not just any man would be addressed as "sir" and not every woman would be called a "lady". Stuff like that help give dialogue an old-fashioned flare.

  2. So I have a question about narrators. Something I've been studying in my English classes is that even when a story is in third person with an unknown narrator, the narrator him/herself still has a unique voice. Lately I've been struggling with how I write (it's always in third person limited), and I realized it's because making my voice the narrator doesn't bring out the story like I want it to. Does anyone have advice on how to make a narrator voice without eclipsing the main character?

    • I was just thinking about 3rd person a day ago! I've been wanting to experiment with narrators.
      For your question: try viewing 3rd person as 1st person who doesn't actually participate in the action. But even this person has feelings. While he's telling the story, he has opinions & thoughts, & roots for the main character(s). So every once in awhile, you could poke in a little reminder that the storyteller is a person, too, like "I think Peter was a getting a little mulish at that point, but Lilac took it with a grain of salt as she always did, & let it pass."
      Besides that, you can foreshadow! "But he couldn't foresee what would happen as I can. He had no idea how it would affect the rest of his life."
      You don't have to eclipse the main character by these insertions. Just remind the reader about their narrator occasionally. & if your narrator is witty, then it makes for some extra laughs from his perspective, too.
      Just my thoughts on that, but I hope it helps you!

    • I would suggest reading Shannon Hale's books, especially "The Goose Girl" and "River Secrets" if you are having a hard time with third person. I find that reading my copy of "River Secrets" helps me with my third person POV.

  3. Hi, I have an unrelated question concerning my WIP. In it, I have three MC who I show the viewpoints of. One I show through letters, another through her diary, and I was wondering if anyone had suggestions for the third? Or will that be too confusing and I should just do regular POV? (Also, it's set in the past, so anything technology-wise wouldn't work).

    • Same here.

      A brief warning, if there were two unique POV and a normal one I may be inclined to think of the normal POV as the main main character.

      If newspaper articles or normal POV won't work, could you show it through either another diary or more letters?

    • Thanks for the suggestions. Newspaper articles might work if I rearrange some stuff.
      However if they don't, and I was to use another diary or more letters for the third character, would that also make a main main character, as Klondyke said? Like, if two characters have a diary and one has letters, would it be assumed that the one with letters was somehow more important? I'm just wondering, because I would like to portray each character as equally 'main', if that makes sense.

    • One more suggestion, which might or might not be feasible: A vocal perspective. Where the character tells her story out loud to another person. To make it feel less like a typical POV, you could have this other person ask questions and make comments, just so long as he or she stays in the background or story frame. This person might not have to have a name – just give an impression of age, personality, and relationship with the MC to avoid a disembodied voice and ear.

      There would be several ways of working this: your character could be telling her story to an uninvolved friend as it happens. Or, the character could be telling her grandchild years down the road. (perhaps in bits and pieces as objects, songs, or the weather remind her of different parts of the story. Maybe not completely in chronological order.) Or, if you have the letters and diaries being found in modern times in an old house, the third perspective could be handed down several generations by oral tradition. (The way my grandmother told me stories her grandfather told her. Never a full third of a novel, but still, nice idea!)

      I agree that getting to know one character through the normal POV and the others only through documents would give the feeling that the one is the “real” main character. “Vocal” storytelling might do the same unless you're careful (the handed down stories might come the closest to the feel of the letters and diary). In my opinion, your idea of possibly two diaries would not have the same problem.

  4. Okay, two new and completely separate questions:
    1. How can I write a book with nine characters? My MC gets stuck on his adventure, toting eight kids (ages 11 and under) with him. There are supposed to be a lot of kids to make the story funny, but I'm afraid they're going to clog up the story for the reader. Any advice?
    2. I have a cursed character, and at first I was thinking of making him cursed with honesty, but that felt too cliche. What are some other curses that would be dangerous for someone guarding a secret?
    Thanks!! 🙂

    • 1. It's okay if some of them fade into the background, and if those nine characters are off on an adventure together, they'll be easier to follow than nine people going about their every day lives and interacting with lots of people. Plus, if they're on a dangerous adventure, you can always kill a few off as you go! (malicious grin)
      Or, on a happier note, make sure they're all very different from each other in ways like age, gender, appearance, and name so the reader can tell them apart. And you could give them each a set role. Some little kid's the complainer, one of the older ones is the nurturer, someone in the middle is a troublemaker, somebody else thinks they should be leader instead, etc.
      2. Actually, the reverse might present more problems: Being forced to lie all the time. Think about it. The most important questions need to be answered with the truth. "What's your name?" "Can we trust you?" "Do you love me?"

    • About Erica Eliza's suggestion for number 2: if someone figures out that this person lies all the time, then it will have a similar effect as constant honesty. They just know that the opposite of the person's answer is the truth. (But it might still feel more creative than the honesty curse.)
      I'm trying to think of other ideas, but nothing's come up yet…

    • Some ideas for number 2:

      What if he was cursed to always make a joke of a situation in spite of what he felt about it?

      He could be cursed to blurt out what he's thinking at inconvenient moments.

      He could be cursed to never be able to refuse a request if it begins with "would you" instead of "could you".

      His curse could make it impossible not to answer a direct question. He could tell the truth or lie, but he must answer.

      What if he's cursed with the desire to talk about the secret and must whisper it to himself now and then?

      That was fun! I hope it gives you some ideas. If you decide that the honesty curse best fits your character and story, I think you should go with it. I don't think we should be afraid of clichés, but build on them.

    • 1. Lots of characters are FUN! I love books with lots of interesting characters. My MC in my TTDP adaption has 11 sister, I myself have five siblings, my mother had 8 siblings, I have 49 cousins (and one on the way), I used to help teach a Sunday school class with 7 kids in it, when I helped for VBS there were 10 kids–all under 7 years old…etc. I say the more people the better. I love little children. If you are writing about 8 kids, you need to make sure they all have distinct personalities. Even though there were 10 kids in VBS I knew each of them well, but more by their personalities than their names (though the fact that they wore name-tags helped a little). They were all different, but some of them were very similar. Colt, James, Wilson and Ellie were rambunctious, and Rose and Ty were quiet and shy. But Colt was kind and Ellie was naughty and James always looked out for Wilson (his brother), who liked sucking on markers. Rosie was so sweet, once she warmed up to you, and Ty cried a lot. Emalynne was also sweet, but not so shy, and a little spoiled. Loraine liked to dance, but she was too shy to sing. Gami liked to play dress up and dolly, but she was kind of violent, her dolls usually ended up being terribly ill and dying or they would get run over by lego trucks or thrown across the room. Brad was clingy. He liked you to hold him and he always looked for your approval. Liam was just adorable. He was so outgoing, he was always so excited about everything, he liked throwing a ball into a tub, then (whether or not it fell into the tub or not) he would jump up and down screaming "I DID IT!!!" And then he'd do it again, repeating the process over and over again. He was also rather spoiled and prone to temper tantrums. They all had very distinct personalities, and they were all terribly lovable. I remember their specific personalities even now, though I guessed at most of the names. Just write the characters as if they were real people and it'll be great!

      Oooh, that was long. Well, anyways, those were just some ideas to go on.

    • I don't think having so many characters will clog it up at all, if you can give them a distinct personality. Going along the lines of what Elisa was saying, I also have a very large family, and on my mom's side, a bajillion and seven cousins (just kidding, it's only fifty three), but we all know each other very well and it's not like (WAIT! sidetone: "nutlike" is a word! ONE word, without a hyphen or anything….okay, sorry, sorry, spellcheck teaches me new words all the time) having so many people around (because family reunions are BIG) makes it hard to get to know someone. Except for the ones that live in Provo, but that's 'cause they're in Utah, so I hardly see them. Somebody asked my parents once if they actually KNEW their children, or if they couldn't know all of them because there were too many. And we all laughed at that question, because, well, of course we know each other. Wow, so basically I'm just repeating a ton of stuff that's basically already been said, and saying "Go for it!". I think that having that many kids WILL be fun, because…well, kids are fun. And there'll probably be arguments and random silliness and the mischief that kids just seem to find everywhere. So. My two cents. Sorry, I got kind of rambly.

      Oh, and as for the second question, maybe he has been cursed with a reeeeally obvious, uncontrollable tic whenever he lies? Or is that too cliche as well? Sorry, that's all I've got. 🙂

  5. Thank you so much for responding, everyone!!! I can't even tell you how much you've all helped!! I am do excited to try all those curse ideas too–thanks for the great list! Bug, I love the idea of the tic! I think I might use that one. Thanks everyone!!

  6. Anyone have thoughts on third person present? I don't see it done very often, but I'm toying with the idea. My MC is going to die (temporarily), so present feels right. Other characters will have to tell the story while they're getting her back and I think multiple first person narrators are jarring.

  7. Okay, here's a complicated question for you all! 🙂 I'm in my early teens, and I've been having trouble being satisfied with my work when I'm writing it for myself, especially in the case of when I'm writing about someone older than I am. I have a wonderful writing book that has a whole bunch of exercises in it, but all the examples from the exercises are from and for adults, so when I do an exercise and I compare my work about kids and teens with the adults it seems insignificant and almost silly. I might try writing a book FOR one of my younger siblings, about someone who's younger than I am, but I wondered if any of you had struggled with this or had any advice. Also, is it easier for any of you to write about someone your age or younger or older?

    • I know what you mean!! I had this problem, too, and I find it's easier to write about people my age or younger, because I've already been there 🙂 I say write what makes you feel comfortable! Also, reading books about characters who are the age you want to write about can make it easier. You can study how each author presents their characters and see experiment with those. And I think writing about younger characters is fantastic! I'm an adult, but my characters are rarely over fourteen. I say go for it! I'm not sure if that answered your question, but I hope it helped! Good luck!

    • Yep, I tend to write about characters my age or younger. My WIP has been a WIP for so long that for a while, I changed the two MCs' ages every year to match mine. By 16, I stopped. 😉 Anyway, yes, write what you're comfortable with! And if it's any help, writing older characters does get easier as you…get older, lol. I have a feeling that we eventually reach a point where we can write any age.

    • I used to match my character's age with my own. Now I do whatever feels right for the character. Most of them are younger than me because I write YA and I'm on the tail end of the teen spectrum. I wrote a seventeen year old character and I was sixteen when I started it, but aside from that, they're all my age or younger. Right now I'm revisiting a story I started in eighth grade and I think I'll keep the characters fourteen.

    • I don't think young people's concerns are any less important than the concerns of adults. Kids are figuring out how to grow up, and what's more vital than that? Besides, in fiction under-age characters regularly save the world!

    • FWIW, I've had the opposite problem. I wanted to write a story for a magazine with all teen protagonists, and I was worried that mine sounded too old. Right now you may have an advantage for that sort of thing.

    • Thank you all so much! This helped me a lot. 🙂 I'm going to continue writing for kids around my age for now, I can always write more adult stuff when I am one! Also, thanks for the links carpelibris! I checked several of them out and they look wonderful.

  8. How do you create a wonderous ending that wraps the story up, but leaves readers wanting more? I'm close to the ending of the first book in (hopefully) a series, and the story ends in a bit of a jarring point. I'm worried it won't feel satisfying without getting rid of the cliffhanger aspect. Could you help? Thanks!

    • Good question! I think if your MC has achieved their goal (or at least made a significant step towards it, if the goal is going to encompass the whole series), the reader will feel satisfied. And if you leave a few loose threads, a hint of danger, that leaves them wanting more. It's a balance, and it may look different with each story! If you know anyone willing to read your story and give you honest feedback about the ending, perhaps they can help more. 🙂

  9. I just finished reading the poetry chapters of Writer to Writer: From Think to Ink. I haven't really written any poetry since four years ago, but after reading it, I sat down and cranked out three. Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. So this is kind of irrelevant, but I just figured I would stop by and say I love you. X'D You've been one of my top favorite authors ever since I started reading. I hope one day, I can write books that are as good as yours.
    (Considering I ever actually finish one of the millions I've started. =P)

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