Who can ever forget innocent Snow White making her way through the clawing hands of the enchanted forest. The trees came alive, and they were not friendly. Yet it was in this same forest where she met a group of dwarves who would help her. The forest might be seen as Snow White's own darkness or the place within herself she fears. It's here, after all, where she is poisoned and also where she experiences her first kiss. The forest symbolizes death and rebirth and sexual awakening.
What does your setting represent for your hero? Consider your hero's journey. Is she in search of love? How can your setting reflect her fears and desires in the opening scenes? Is it summer where the air is dry? Does she live by the sea, but she is afraid to enter its waters? Is your hero struggling to come out? Must he burn away judgment in order to be accepted? Think a forest fire or volcanic eruption.
Playing with our setting and treating it like a character provides us the opportunity to push our plot forward in dramatic ways.
A few weeks ago, I offered an exercise: sketch your main character as a landscape (the shy teen might look like an isolated desert town); sketch a character that looks like your setting (a lush green meadow might look like a happy carefree little girl, sun-kissed cheeks, clear open eyes).
How does your setting change as your character transforms? As the shy teen opens to his world, does the weather shift from hot and oppressive to cool; does your hero suddenly notice the beauty in the sidewalk weeds? After your innocent girl meets a group of bullies on the way home from school, does a thunderstorm suddenly break out?
Bring your setting alive. It's not a still painting. It is a living, breathing landscape that embraces your characters in the folds of its mountains or casts them aside at its cliff's edge.
Finally, consider using human qualities to highlight action or raise tension:
The brutal sun beats down on our backs.
I float upon the sea, wrapped in its motherly embrace.
The wind reaches for her hair, he cannot find her. She'll make sure of it. As she dodges around the corner, its curb rises up to trip her. The cold, unforgiving pavement slaps her face, absorbs her blood into its gray skin.
How will you bring your setting to life? Share your favorite settings from books you love - or even from one of your own.
setting - the relevance of time
Today we continue exploring setting. Besides place, setting involves choosing the appropriate time. Like the location of your story, the time period can also serve as a metaphorical backdrop to your plot or characters. Did you do your homework? No worries. I'll catch you up. The movie Bladerunner came out in 1982. It's set in a 'near distant future' - 2019. Well, hello! That's just around the corner now! The premise has a renegade cop hunting down cyberclones run amok. Today, such an event in four years seems quite farfetched. What about in 2038? Now, you're not so sure. In any case, the story works because we can only imagine life in increments of five or ten years ahead. Consider the world your grandchildren might live, and you might find yourself in the middle of a Ray Bradbury novel.
Our topic today involves time. Even if you are set to write a dystopian romance set in some indistinct post-apocalyptic future, you'll need to do some research.
Future: Three things deserve attention in these stories: how we wage war, how we heal, how we live/work. Pay special attention to those elements, and you can set your characters in a very realistic and possible future. The key is to keep some basics the same. Basics that might remain unchanged: hairstyles, the planet's physical continental geography, language. Consider how we've changed over the centuries. What has changed the most? Technology, healthcare, transportation. What has changed the least? Systems - every workplace has a hierarchy; every government has corrupt or idealistic leaders; every country has some level of poverty, illiteracy, domestic violence.
The key is to select a handful of things to change and things to keep the same. The right mixture creates a very realistic and plausible future in the mind of your present-day reader.
Books to read: 1984, Atlas Shrugged, Brave New World, The Road.
I am not examining Fantasy (which has its own time concerns). Here's a good site to visit.
Past: The obvious difference here is that the past has happened. You can't change it. Or can you? You do call yourself a writer of fiction, don't you? The trick to setting your story in the past involves strategy. (Something to take note: stories set in the 1960s that were written then are not historical. They are contemporary morphing into "period" pieces. A story written today that is set in 1982 would be classified historical fiction if it centers around an important event (the AIDS epidemic). A story written today set in the 1990s that involves a fictitious teenager struggling to own his own sexual identity with no reference to actual events might simply be a 'story set in the past'.) Back to the strategy. Guess what, it's called research. Yep, I said it again. Remember, the past has happened. Chances are your readers know something about it - either through direct experience, reading about it or talking to someone who lived through it. You can't have your pawn broker living in 1939 New York and not identify events relating to the war. How did a regular working class citizen spend their days while troops flew out over the Atlantic? The strategy means - keep the global basics the same, change the small stuff. Don't change the president in 1954 (Eisenhower), but go ahead and create a fictitious town in Nebraska with a fictitious mayor who might actually be some distant relative to Ike. Be a writer, but don't be a lazy writer.
Books to read: The Book Thief, Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of the Blue Dolphin.
Present: Now we get to have some fun. Why? Because the present is happening right now! You are living it. You know most about this time period. Many great writers tell us to 'write what you know'. Well, you know 2015, so write it into your story. To really ground your story into today, find something in the news, something controversial, something that when the reader reads it, they'll go 'omg! I remember that'. Example: Obamacare, fracking, medical marijuana, marriage equality. How might either of these issues affect your characters?
Books to read because they are amazing: Any Pulitzer.
What's important to remember is that no matter where or when you set your story, you need to be consistent. Do your research. (Don't let your 17-year-old hero buy a 1971 Ford Fairlane today if he doesn't have twenty grand.)
What's your favorite time setting? Share it here with us.
More on time and seasons next week.
Until then, write on!
Last week, we explored setting - the time period, place and duration of your story. Setting can add a unique element to your story. It can highlight themes, serve as a metaphor for plot or character, or expose the central message. Let's look more closely at how you can use your story's setting to develop your main character.
Consider the homework assignment: Pleasantville. In this 1998 feature film, two siblings find themselves back in time inside a 1950s TV show. The film explores "original sin" and our fears around a variety of human behaviors. It seeks to expose how our own prejudices lock us inside a colorless world - because we see the world literally in black and white.
Setting is crucial to the storyline. David and Jennifer's own world is fraught with parental neglect. When they arrive in the Pleasantville family as Bud and Mary Jane, it at first seems a better fit. Quickly, their outside ideals influence this idyllic town and expose the hidden prejudices and fears. Color plays a major role, specifically red, as does fire.
The town is flat, lawns are trimmed, fences are abundant. The physical setting is another character in the story and serves as a metaphor during the siblings' and citizens' transformations.
As you develop your plot and observe your character's journey toward solving his problem, consider how the setting mirrors or counters this process. You can play the what if game to explore possibilities.
What if your timid character who must find the courage to come out hides inside the town library? He feels safe in the words of others but can't find his own.
What if your angry adolescent who must confront his abusive father lives in a multi-story apartment building with no elevator (electrical outage, under repair, etc.)? His struggle to climb the stairs home each day mirror his internal struggle to confront his father.
What if your character's antagonist, the school bully, must take several different buses to get to school? The numerous transfers offer a metaphoric opportunity for change.
Keep exploring and play the what if game. Even if you choose to keep your setting in the background, there is always room to play up simple features - an ominous financial district, a pristine newly constructed church, streets named for civil rights' leaders.
Share your ideas here.
More fun with setting and time next week.
Until then, write on!