As a follow-up to the workshop I taught last weekend at the Willamette Writers Conference, here are tips and hacks for creating a fictional world that resonates and causes things to happen:
- The spirit and traditions of a place are not just inert background or the canvas to showcase emotions; it is part of the humans at the center of the story.
- Plan for a setting that multi-tasks: shapes the characters, causes things to happen, creates tension, forms a cauldron, etc.
- Choose settings that naturally lend themselves to sensory details. “it smelled like jail…sore knees and loose assholes.” ― David Benioff, City of Thieves
- Setting can be a catalyst for events and character growth as in Gone with the Wind.
- Setting can be a metaphor for themes or concepts.
- Use settings that mold characters.
- Put setting in motion.
- Weave in imagery.
- Write from deep point of view. Filtering a scene through a character’s emotions and perceptions can profoundly influence what the reader “sees.”
- Scene by scene, ask what the viewpoint character sees, hears, tastes, smells, and touches in that particular scene.
- Setting should help create the inescapable cauldron of fiction. Small town? Large family? Neighborhood? Mountain village?
- Use archetypes since they’re part of readers’ conditioning & unconscious.
- The key to using place to support the story structure is setting should force decisions.
- Your choice of location can never be random. Write stories set in places that the protagonist finds meaningful and/or challenging. This can mean that your protagonist finds it difficult to return home, feels at odds with the place he grew up in, has outgrown the values of the place, is a fish out of water.
- Create a story world (and main conflict) that will showcase your protagonist’s main personality traits. For example, swashbuckling, bold, brazen, and adventurous Indiana Jones is perfect for searching out ancient ruins and treasures.
- First impressions can be powerful. Use them via a character’s viewpoint and use them to also characterize.
- Setting helps create the ‘rules’ of the world. An underclass citizenry is ruled by and serves the Capital, toiling in poverty and hardship.Animals talk to humans, are warriors, leaders, and sages.The German Army has seized Leningrad, the Russians are resisting, so they are under siege.And hungry.
- Environments should create suspense…and surprises.
- Create a world of unease, asking yourself how you can make your protagonist uncomfortable, anxious, off balance by using setting.
- Don’t dump/lump in details all at once—build throughout, tweaking the tension as you go along.
- Draw contrasts.
- Work hard at spatial arrangements
- Use weather to heighten difficulties.
- Look for the perfect details that are arresting, quirky, telling.
- Try to use details that can change over the course of the story such as a garden that hibernates, blossoms, then fades. A family estate that deteriorates or prospers over time.
- Use photos, lots of photos, for reference and inspiration. The internet is your friend: Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, SnapShot, Google Images
- Jot down concrete nouns and associations.
- Create maps and sketch action scenes.
- Create mind maps about the place.
- Don’t explain the obvious or the normal. Contemporary readers are sophisticated and don’t need every nook and cranny explored unless the writer has a specific purpose in mind.
- Use both wide-angle lens and close-ups just as with a camera.
- Borrow another trick from television and film industry: lighting. Shadows, brightly-lit breakfast room, cloudy nights, full moon nights, starry nights, dim/dank/empty cellars and alleys and streets, candlelight, lantern light, total dark all create mood, atmosphere, and physical barriers. Humans are at a disadvantage in the dark…the ultimate reason for using it.
- Use setting to establish thresholds, which in turn support the structure. It’s especially powerful, creates suspense when a character crosses over from the ordinary world into a world where the rules aren’t known.
Plot Points are your linchpin scenes and there is no story without them.A plot point is a fulcrum and here it shifts the story from one act to the next. They’re planted periodically in a novel or screen play and push the story forward.
Act 1 sets up the story then closes with a plot point. Kaboom!
It will occur at about the 25% mark in your manuscript and it needs to charge the whole shebang going forth.
This event ends the set up and the protagonist crosses over into new territory and becomes locked into the conflict. Sometimes this is called crossing the threshold or the point of no return. The first plot point is a milestone and changes everything.
Here are some characteristics of the first plot point:
- There is no turning back. A plot point is a one-way gate.
- The protagonist is often forced to make a choice or decision and this decision is life changing.
- It might start a clock ticking, time running out.
- The protagonist crosses a threshold—might leave home, accept a job or assignment,get handed a new case, somehow leaves his comfort zone. Stories exist to send protagonist’s into new emotional, physical territory.
- The central dramatic question is established if it hasn’t been already.
Plan for mega wattage.
Many experts consider the 1st Plot Point the most important event in your story. So plan carefully for maximum wattage and fallout/repercussions.
- This importance is based on the change (usually undesired) in the protagonist’s plans, status, future, desire, goals…..
- It always delivers conflict or sets up conflict.
- It happens when your protagonist is off balance.
The curtain falls and the story moves into Act 2. (thanks for the opportunity to use humdinger at least once before I die.)
I’m teaching at 10:30 this morning at the Willamette Writers Conference. For today’s schedule check here. For more information on the workshops I taught this weekend, please check back. Oh, and if attended my workshops, do drop me a line. Would love to hear from you. The conference, as always, was high-energy and brimming with fabulous writers.
A potent middle creates anticipation and involvement building toward the climax.
The laws of cause and effect governs Act 2.
Middles reveal characters growing and changing and often desperate.
Act 2 must contain a pounding drive forward and increasing tension, suspense and complications.
The heartaches, complications, trials and obstacles in the middle become worse and worse.
Choices must be made.
The miseries in the middle become worse and worse.
The protagonist’s motivations increase and those motivations should create/exact a huge toll.
Act 2 will hold unanswered questions and usually some of them won’t be answered until the end.
Middles often contain a reversal of fortune along with a reversal of resolutions or goals forged in in Act 1. And yes, this is hard to pull off.
Middles often contain a character recognizing important truths about himself.
Middles also often contain the protagonist recognizing truths about another character’s identity, flaws or importance.
Act 2 can reveal the gulf/contrast between the protagonist and another character. Often these gulfs weren’t previously recognized or admitted.
Middles reveal the protagonist making difficult or excruciating choices as options are eliminated.
Middles reveal the protagonist facing internal and external conflict.
Whenever possible, use the pressure of time running out in the middle.
I will be teaching a workshop Prop Master Extraordinaire at the Willamette Writers Conference today (8/13) at 3.30. You can find the complete schedule here.
Today’s stories are visual and props help bring them to life. A prop is any object that can be moved and includes clothing, furniture, cars, and guns.
Personal props are grand fun to invent. They’re also a handy shorthand to nail a character’s personality. And it all starts with knowing your character. Now as you write your novel this knowledge will grown, but the more you understand him or her going into the project, the easier it will be to write.
- If my character had one adjective to describe himself it would be_________.
- What is cluttering your character’s junk drawer?
- What does he or she stash in the glove box?
- What is found in his/her underwear/lingerie drawer?
- Favorite or go-to wardrobe items.
- Describe the contents of your protagonist’s refrigerator.
- Does he she own weapons? Yoga mat? Bicycle?
- What kind of car does he or she drive?
- Does your protagonist own a pet?
- What object in his/her apartment/home brings comfort?
- What prop will help create empathy for your character?
Tip: When planning a story, start with your protagonist, the person who will be most hurt and changed by story events. Your protagonist —who is usually but not always your viewpoint character—is your reader’s portal into the story and the story world. The more observant he or she can be (curious, dazzled, apprehensive all work well) the more enticing the story world. A protagonist needn’t be a genius or even educated –think Huck Finn, but he does need to be accessible.
I’ll be teaching a workshop on Location, Location, Location at 10:30 today at the Willamette Writer’s Conference, in Portland, Oregon. You can find the whole schedule here. Please check back for the handout for this session. Meanwhile to get you started:
- Where will key scenes take place?
- Have you visited your settings if they take place in a real location?
- What is your time frame, time span?
- Will you be moving in and out of time or is the storyline linear?
- What is the weather like and will it affect the story?
- What are the social conditions?
- What is the landscape or environment like?
- What noteworthy details bring the setting to life?
- What are the standards for creating setting in your genre?
- How will you be using the setting to create tension?
Tip: Be wary of overkill. Description slows the pace of fiction. Choose the most distinctive details to make the place leap off the page. Also opt for breaking up the description with sentences and phrases scattered throughout the text, or broken up with dialogue or action, instead of clumped together on the page.
I shrugged. I was afraid that if I opened my mouth I would say something mawkish and stupid, or worse, that I would start to cry through a night like this one, and I was convinced that the sniper from Archangel was the only girl I would ever love.
Her gloved hand still rested on my cheek. “Tell me your last name.”
“I’ll track you down, Lyova Beniov. All I need is the name.” She leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. Her mouth was cold, her lips rough from the winter wind, and if the mystics are right and we are doomed to repeat our squalid lives ad infinitum, at least I will always return to that kiss.
“To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen.” – Linda Hogan
beyond the fields we know