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Reverse Engineering of Setting

Reverse Engineering of Setting by Scott Mellgren “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society. The world is our setting, change it to drive your story. Space is a void. Place is setting. Time can change everything. Think of a movie set. Places are usually occupied by characters, background and props. Things happen and events occur. All those things that make a narrative: action, dialogue, story etc. Getting specific about setting is what propels an author to use setting. Use it like a tool. Setting is as malleable as a main character and the story itself. Setting can drive decisions that authors must make. Setting can be reverse engineered. Here are two examples I’ll invent to demonstrate for you. The first is a small item, a gun. The second is a big item, the sun. Example 1: Let’s make a movie. It’s a night scene. Your main character is James Bond and he is being chased. He needs a gun… to take down the international thugs on his tail. How do you give him a gun? How does a gun become available in his surroundings, his place, his action, his needs, his conflict… all we need is a gun. We see him approach a highly secured building with armed guards. He has the opportunity to relieve a guard of his gun. Being the antihero that he is… Bond is gentle. He only slightly hurts the dude, knocking him out, stuffs him in a bush, hiding him behind a thick stone wall so he won’t get hurt in the cross fire. Bond now has a gun that we generated in his proximity, as part of his setting, with which to eliminate his pursuers. Roll reversal, the prey becomes the hunter, and our main character’s external conflict gets resolved. Setting made this all happen. I would consider everything I’ve described as the setting except our main character… Government-looking fortress, some armed guards, some international thugs, and the isolated guard who gets knocked out and his prop (which is sometimes called a firearm). Don’t forget about or overlook the first item in this example of setting… It’s a night scene. Bond has probably just had dinner with a lovely lady and he’s wearing a tuxedo. What is a tux? The tux is setting. The tux may also be called wardrobe, characterization, style… lots of good answers. Example 2: I want the people... read more

Change Your Character’s Setting or Change Your Setting’s Character

Diving right in, James Scott Bell says this about setting: Here’s a major tip for setting: Think of it as another character in your book. Make it offer up possibilities of conflict and tension. Make it brood over the proceedings and exert influence. Bell, James Scott (2012-12-10). Revision and Self Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells (p. 167). Writer’s Digest Books. Now, while treating setting as character is nothing earth shattering to any that have researched writing, Bell does a great job of spelling it out. Great characters are dynamic. They change. Great settings can and should do the same. A writer can make this happen in a couple of ways: change the character’s setting or change the setting’s character. Changing a character’s setting is as duh as it sounds. It’s also the easiest way to avoid complacency and inject interest in your story. Trapped in a sagging story? Road trip! Get your characters out and about. New locales do more than just spice up the storyline; they create new opportunities for conflict. Questing fiction excels at this: The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit both take advantage to constantly introduce new settings. A reader’s enthusiasm comes not just from getting to know the characters, but exploring these new places and learning how our heroes will react to them. They aren’t just beautiful window dressing. They are active agents seeking to disrupt the heroes’ journey. One of my favorite parts in The Hunger Games trilogy is in when they visit the other districts. It’s like finally meeting characters we’ve heard so much about. As readers we enjoy getting to know the world or worlds the writer has created or placed us in, and seeing what obstacles those new environments present. (Spoiler Alert-as if you didn’t know) In Catching Fire (Book 2 of The Hunger Games) Katniss and Peeta, visit District 11, the home of Rue, a young girl she allied with in The Hunger Games. Katniss delivers a heartfelt speech and some of the occupants show defiance to the Capitol by saluting her. Several who started the salute are killed. Rather than just give us a change of scenery, the author uses the scenery/unnamed inhabitants to create an event that develops Katniss’ character. A writer should always remember: setting in a novel is not just a stage dressing. It should be there for a reason: to act and interact with... read more

Building the Picture Book World: Concise, Consistent and Contagious

In young adult or middle grade novels, the world is slowly unpacked in the first few chapters. And readers have the luxury of discovering more about characters, plot and impact throughout the 40,000- to 120,000-word manuscript. In five hundred words or less, the picture book world must be woven seamlessly around lovable characters, believable conflict and child-friendly transformation.  Remembering three “C’s” when building a picture book world can increase reader commitment: Concise, Consistent and Contagious. Bats at the Beach (Brian Lies, Houghton Mifflin, 2006), an imaginative story of bats invading the beach after dark, paints the world with few words and hilarious bat antics: “Like playing with the stuff we find, which others must have left behind.” Two bats sword fighting with straws set the stage for bat-fun with beach trash, cover to cover. “There’s really no more thrilling ride than surfing on a summer tide.” With wings spread, life-vested bats are hanging ten in discarded hot dog trays and Styrofoam cups.   Well-chosen words and moonlit illustrations create a nocturnal beach party that screams of contagious fun. Dreaded real-life bats are transformed into endearing creatures in this hysterical bat-scape, scoring a perfect 10. In The Lorax (Dr. Seuss, Random House, 1971), world building is everything. A place and a time that had once been vibrant now lay in ruin. Playful language sends the imagination on a trip readers would willingly take again and again: “Way back in the days when the grass was still green……the song of the Swomee-Swans rang out in space… morning I came to this glorious place.” The rhythmic tale unfolds as we are introduced to unfamiliar, yet charming vocabulary, like Lerkim, Truffala, Thneed, Once-ler, and Bar-ba-loots. Juxtapose this delightful prose with tragic choices of a greedy antagonist: “Now all that was left ‘neath that bad-smelling sky was my big empty factory….the Lorax….and I.” As the Once-ler finally understands the Lorax’s word, UNLESS, the reader pictures hope for a future that might resemble the past. World building IS the story in The Lorax, which continues to influence environmental awareness in millions of children almost fifty years after its publication. Use of concise language opens the door for creative illustrations that deepen understanding of the world. Even in The Lorax, words were carefully chosen for impact.   Consistency in building a picture book world is critical in every detail. In Bats on the Beach, details included moon-tan lotion and picnic baskets filled with crickets and beetles. Illustrations details... read more

3 Dimensional Settings: Living, Breathing Backdrops

A skilled writer knows that a setting is more than just physical details. It transports the reader through the senses, utilizes imagery, sets the tone of the story, and introduces the character’s mood and attitude. Characters interact with their settings and in doing so the setting portrays growth and theme. The reader doesn’t need to just visualize setting, they need to immerse in it. The writer needs to use all the sensing tools: smells, sounds, textures. And which details the writer uses sets the tone. Does the character notice the smell of lavender flowers or the rotten cat carcass? The perfect place to find props for your characters to interact with is in the setting. These props not only give your characters something to do during dialogue, but can deepen that dialogue with symbolism. Setting can be used to trip up your characters’ actions. Do they keep stepping on the creaky stair sneaking around the house? Does the smell of waffles awake them early in the morning? Sometimes the setting seems to take on a life of its own through personification such as: the snow swaddled the earth or the sun glared down. Most important, characters should interact with the setting. Do they spit, liter, or kick up the grass? Or do they pick up trash and prune? The reader should know how the character feels about it too. Is your city bright lights and magic or a dirty, grimy sewer hole? To show growth or introduce theme, a main character should revisit a setting to give the reader the initial feelings toward it and then the character’s later emotions. Some would argue that setting is a character itself, and that is absolutely true in one of my favorite stories, “The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein. The tree is a character and the setting and the story is a short, wonderful example of a 3 dimensional backdrop. In the beginning the boy loves the tree as it is and wants to be with it always. Then as the boy gets older, he disregards the tree unless he gets something in return (branches for a house, apples to sell, a boat from her trunk), and finally he realizes at the end of life those things were worthless, he needs just the love of the tree and a place to sit. Helpful References: Kole, Mary. Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and middle grade readers.... read more

One Writer’s Journey in Building a World

World building in writing encompasses all the nuances of the environment and culture in a novel. It can be as basic as the most familiar things in our lives or as exotic as an alien race on another planet. Science fiction and fantasy stories need an extra punch of world building—they have to combine the familiar with the unfamiliar and keep everything consistent. While I was writing my first novel, I knew nothing about the need to world build until I got halfway through my story, but I learned from my mistakes and now use some tools to help me. My most important tool is creating multiple timelines before I ever start a story. One timeline is about the actual story progression, but I also create a timeline for the main character and each of the primary secondary characters. These timelines include important events and the impact they have on each character. If I am writing about a world very different from my present reality in the United States, I make a timeline for historical events—the composition of the government, the important people of the time/place, and other significant cultural developments. In my first novel, I hadn’t created timelines first, so my story was very convoluted. I spent days of rewriting, making a change in later chapters that changed many elements in the early ones. I soon lost track of all the changes and felt as lost as my characters became. Eventually, my desire for organization kicked in. That’s when I started creating timelines and sticking to them. My second tool is just to write. This is because until I experience the world of my novel, I don’t really feel connected with it. So I write through the perspective of my main character(s) a first draft of the storyafter I have fully developed timelines. When I start writing, some of the events/reactions change, but since I know the ultimate end of the novel, the changes are usually minor and add to the overall storyline. The hardest tool for me to implement is what I call the waiting game. After two years of writing and rewriting my first story with multiple storylines and endings, I finally moved on to something else. Most writers stress the need to finish a book and then let it sit while you move on to something else. I didn’t heed this advice until my second novel. I let it sit for about half a year... read more

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