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.
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!
A story is not a story without a place and time. Setting can make the story. It can be another character on the page. Hogwarts and 4 Privet Drive live and breathe as much as the characters. The pristine Capitol coldly greets the innocent Katniss and Peeta. Whether a mysterious island (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Lord of the Flies, Island of the Blue Dolphins), a stark dystopian future or past (The Giver, Divergent series) or a lush outdoors (Bridge to Terrabithia, Call of the WIld), your story's setting is as important as your characters.
How do you make it real?
First, you must find a setting that matches your plot and character.
Second, you must select a specific time period (present, past, future to start with), a place (real or imagined) and a duration (passing of time from page 1 to the end).
Last, you must treat your setting - as stated previously - like a living, breathing character.
Back to No. 1 - Match the setting to the plot or main character.
Consider Katniss. Cold, focussed, determined. Her character gains a warmth by the end of the story. In the beginning, she is home amidst poverty and oppression. She passes through the Capitol and glimpses of what could be. During the Games, the landscape continuously changes, as does Katniss who reveals her feelings for Peeta. In the end, she returns home and we see she is caught between her feelings of what was to what could be.
Take your main character's arc. Record his/her traits. How do you want this character to transform? Consider whether a lush and vibrant setting is best, or if an industrial landscape will reveal more of the plot and internal conflicts. (Homework: watch the cult film Pleasantville.)
No. 2 - Select a time period.
This may be obvious if you've all ready planned a sci-fi, dystopian or historical novel. However, you may still need to consider how far into the past or future you want to be.
Setting your story in the historical past requires a commitment to research. Do not be lazy with this if you choose to write a tale in Victorian England; you might accidentally write that your poor character "turns on the light switch".
Setting your story in the near distant future - say, 2085 - with America in complete poverty or Venezuela as the new world superpower might be a little unbelievable. However, opening your story with these same scenarios in 2185, might not be as hard to believe.
Of course, if your story takes place in modern day, you can have as much fun as you want because it's fiction. If you choose a modern day setting but make clear it's in a parallel world (2015, New York City with Jim Carrey as mayor), the world is yours!
(Homework: watch the film Bladerunner.)
No. 3 - Personify your setting.
If you've dabbled in step 1 (matching your setting to your character), this won't be too tricky. Not too...
Let's try this exercise. Take out your drawing pad and pencil. Sketch a place that looks like:
1. an awkward, shy, teenager
2. an angry football captain
3. a smart but clumsy office worker
Now, go the other way. Sketch a character that looks like:
1. a neglected city
2. a lush country meadow
3. a snowy mountain village
In my second novel, Birds on a Wire, the teens spend a lot of time at the Orange Shack, a hole-in-the-wall taco stand next to a wire-fence enclosed orange tree orchard. Both places personify something about the characters. In the end, the orchard can't remain as it always was, and neither can the characters. Something must be destroyed.
(Homework: read Hansel and Gretel or Snow White.)
Share your thoughts below on how you make your setting real.
We'll have more fun with setting next week.
Until then, write on!