Saturday, February 27

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting: How to Show Not Tell (Part 2)



Summary: Setting is an essential part of good writing because a well developed setting helps a writer show rather than tell. Each object in a story has a function, a purpose, a goal. This implies that if we were to get a peek into the hero's--or villain's--lair, that simply by looking at the objects that are most important to him would allow us to, in a sense, read the character's mind. We would know who they really were, what they wanted as well as what their goals were. In what follows I unpack this idea.

Nothing is more important to character development than setting.

At least, that’s what I think. After you’ve finished reading this, let me know if I’ve convinced you.

Setting enables a character to become who they really are and, in so doing, shows what that character wants and why they want it. Setting puts the character’s passions on display, it reveals their loves, hates, fears, strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t believe me?

It will take me a few paragraphs to develop this idea, so hang in there. It’ll be worth it.

Things and Goals

Look around. You’re surrounded by things. I’m sitting cross legged in my black office chair typing on a keyboard. There are miscellaneous pens scattered in front of me, a coffee grinder, a pair of reading glasses, a magnifying glass, a box of sticky notes, a desk lamp and a cup full of steaming hot coffee. 

But… So what? What do any of these things mean

Well, why do I have any of them? I need my pens bcause without them I couldn’t scribble in my writing journal and that wouldn’t be good because that’s how I write most of my rough drafts. Now, I don’t always like writing rough drafts, but I do it because I like eating and having a roof over my head. 

Each object on my desk is like my pens in that each has a function and, as such, is tied to a goal. 

Here’s another example. When I was a teen one of my best friends, Carl, was always on a diet. His Achilles' heel was junk food, when he was stressed he couldn't resist it. 

One day we were meeting up with friends so, being kind, he drove by my place and picked me up so I didn't have to take the bus. When I climbed into his car the first thing I saw was a discarded Big Mac wrapper that had escaped the garbage. That discarded wrapper told me quite a lot about him: he was stressed and, because he'd had a Big Mac recently, he was feeling guilty for cheating.

Things and Goals

Okay, so far so good. Now let’s talk about goals. 

In a story, every object is tied to a goal via either it’s function or by what it represents. (If it isn’t tied to a goal, why have it in the story?)

I think that all things--and therefore all goals--could, more-or-less, be said to fall into one of three categories: things we need to SURVIVE, things we use to PLAY and (for lack of a better term) things associated with DEEP MEANING. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Survival 

In life we do certain things (for example, go to work at a job we hate) to get other things (like food and shelter) we need to survive. 

My example for this category is a briefcase. A briefcase isn’t wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it would help someone achieve their goal of helping them at their job. Now, this isn’t to say that everyone who owns a briefcase hates their job, but my guess is that if 100 briefcase owners were each given 10 million dollars they would quit their jobs and divest themselves of their briefcases. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. 

This goal is all about removing the negative--starvation and homelessness. There is nothing the person values in itself in pursuing their goal of being employed. I could imagine that some people, upon retiring, burn their briefcases!

Play

We do other things (for example, go fishing) to get things (for example, fish plus a feeling of tranquility) that we like. As with the above category, certain objects, certain ‘things,’ can be associated with this activity. For example, a fishing rod. A fishing rod isn't wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it would help someone achieve their goal of helping them catch fish. 

But, unlike the survival category, this goal is not just about removing the negative, it is also about introducing a positive, desired, emotional or mental state. Associated with this kind of goal is something a person values in itself (for example, a feeling of wellbeing). I could imagine that some people, upon retiring from fishing, still keep their fishing rods as a reminder of good times, or perhaps they gift it to a young friend.

I’ll talk more about this, below, but of course while we perhaps have a stereotype in our heads about what the ‘average’ fishing experience is or why people fish (I fished quite a bit as a child) of course not all people have positive experiences or mental states associated with fishing. In this case such a person might toss their fishing pole into the garbage (similar to the briefcase). BUT this would be unusual and so would (or so I think) make us curious WHY. We don’t need an explanation for why a person would enjoy fishing, but we do need one for why they hated it. Again, this is my claim, please feel free to disagree!

Deep Meaning

We do still other things (for example, get married) to get things (a family as well as a purpose in life) that we love, things that bring a deeper meaning to life, things that help us structure our life, things that provide a framework. I’ve called this category ‘deep meaning.’ 

Certain objects, certain ‘things,’ can be associated with states-of-affairs that bring our lives deeper meaning. For example, a wedding ring. Generally speaking, the ring isn’t wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it symbolizes the desired state-of-affairs of being married, of the commitment one spouse has made to another. This state-of-affairs is something the person values for itself and it will greatly change their life and how they move about in the world. 

I would expect that were the relationship to end suddenly that the nature of the relationship and the reason for its termination would affect one’s attitude toward one’s wedding ring. For example, if a beloved spouse passes on then I would imagine the ring would be treasured, kept. If John has a nasty divorce I wouldn’t be surprised were he to toss his wedding ring into the ocean or garbage can.

What we have so far:

There are certain objects (e.g., briefcases) that are stereotypically associated with negative things and others (e.g., wedding rings) that are stereotypically associated with deeply meaningful wonderful things (e.g., marriage). Still others (e.g., fishing rods and playstations) have some emotional valence that falls somewhere in between the two.

So, to recap. The idea is that objects have functions and that these functions imply particular goals. Therefore, when writing a story, in introducing an object with a particular function or one that represents a certain thing, you are also introducing a goal, one that might say quite a lot about the character. 

This is an essential part of showing not telling.

Using Setting to Show Not Tell

An example: Carl

Let’s go back to the example of my friend Carl. The Big Mac wrapper implied something about his goals and the extent to which he was achieving them. If I were writing a story about Carl, the discarded McDonald’s wrapper would say quite a lot about my friend’s success in achieving his weight loss goals. But, also, and more importantly, it would tell me he was under a lot of stress. He wouldn’t have to say anything to me in order to communicate this information, all I needed to see was that discarded wrapper. That’s a big part of showing and not telling.

So there are objects, and objects have a function, and objects are tied to goals via their function. Also, we have either positive or negative feelings about an object based on loosely two things: First, how we feel about the goal and, second, how efficiently the object gets us to that goal.

You can see where I’m going with this. Since the possession of an object can imply a goal, a desire, what objects your characters have in their homes, their private abodes, say quite a lot about first, what face they want to present to the world and, second, what they really care about. It can tell the reader what the character loves, what she wants, what she hopes to achieve. That goes to the essence of characterization.

But that’s not all.

Kicking it up a notch: Breaking Stereotypes

This is really what this post is about: How to use the juxtaposition of setting and character to create conflict and surprise. But before I talk about that let’s get more specific about desires and goals.

Mixing it up: Subversion of Expectation

Comedy

Comedy often results when an object that is used for play is used instead for survival. For example I can imagine a modern day Wednesday (from the Addams Family) being forced to play on a Playstation as though it were much loathed homework. This would tell us A LOT about Wednesday and the values of the Addams family.

One of the things that separates an entertaining story from a boring one is that an entertaining story will have a few of these surprises.

How do we do this? 

One way we can both surprise and intrigue the reader is to take an object that is commonly associated with one category--say a wedding ring--and have a character feel about it the same way we normally feel about a briefcase. 

Terror

Have you seen the 1987 movie Black Widow, the one starring Debra Winger? Here’s the description from IMDB: “A federal investigator tracks down a gold-digging woman who moves from husband to husband to kill them and collect the inheritance.” So, for Catherine, the murderer, her wedding ring had the same emotional significance as a new briefcase would have for the average person. When it comes to understanding such a person that’s a valuable piece of information! That sort of thing paints a powerful picture.

Or how about this: Imagine you have next a door neighbour who everyone thinks adores his wife. She passes after a lengthy illness. He seems devastated. A couple of days after she passes there is a bad windstorm and garbage cans are tipped over, their contents strewn about all over the block. On your way to the store you pass your bereaved neighbours home and see that the wind has tossed the contents of his garbage can all over the road. There, in front of you, is his wife's wedding ring. That would be a good opening for a mystery!

The Harry Potter stories used this device. There are two things here. First, school is more in the survival category, not many children are terribly excited about going to school or doing homework. But J.K. Rowling, first, made a character--Hermione--who loved doing homework like many people love football or hockey. 

Second, the entire school is one that many of Rowling’s readers dreamt of attending! She took something--schooling--that usually is in the “I need to do something I don’t like” category and put it in the “play” category by uniting it with the idea of wizardry, of learning how to control magic.

Show Don’t Tell

You might be thinking: well, Woodward, isn’t that all just a part of characterization? Yes! But to SHOW who a character is we want to have the character react to something important to them--to someTHING in the setting. In doing so, the character will be brought to life. 

(Jim Butcher has written about how to create an interesting character.)

Also, when we take a thing that normally belongs in one category and put it in another, our character is shown to be unusual. That’s a good thing because unusual characters are memorable characters, and memorable characters are fun to read about.

Finally, a thing that characterizes the fictional person is the relative proportion of, say, survival items to play items. Or play items versus deep meaning items. What would it say about a character if his man cave had NO deep meaning items, NO survival items but a lot of play items? He would seem to be a playboy, a dilettante, someone who was truly interested in nothing and lived only for the pleasure of the moment. But (putting a twist on this) what if (as in The Scarlet Pimpernel or Batman) our hero had a secret room that was full of objects from the survival and deep meaning categories? That would indicate that his playboy image was a ruse, a smokescreen.

Summary

It’s fun for me to think about objects this way, it helps me understand the characters I’ve loved in new ways. I hope you’ve gotten something from my ramblings, perhaps a slightly new way of thinking about something you’ve always instinctively known. I hope it was worth it. 😀

(By the way, if you write--you don't have to have anything published--and would like to be interviewed, tweet at me (@WoodwardKaren).)

Thanks for reading! This post took me a long time to write, I’m hoping to have my next blog post up next week. Good writing.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)
Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)
Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)
Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles
Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense
How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)
Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and the Hero's Journey (Part 1)

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Thursday, February 11

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and the Hero's Journey (Part 1)



In the last few posts I’ve discussed a story’s setting. Today I want to discuss a story’s setting and how it changes in the context of the hero's journey.

Setting Reflects Changes

The setting of a story changes as the story progresses. Often, the setting for each scene mirrors the hero’s arc. (If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of the hero’s journey, I’ve written about it here.) 

Just in case all that is clear as mud, let me give you a few examples of what I mean.

Setting Reflects Story

Dichotomies: Tagging the hero and villain

In the movie, The Matrix, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity are dressed in black while their opposition wears business suits. 

Here the opposites are agents of order versus agents of chaos. The agents of order (and, yes, they were actually called Agents!) are dressed in business suits and are part of an irredeemably corrupt system.

The agents of chaos, the ones wearing black, are trying to tear down that corrupt system. It was clever to subvert the audience’s expectations and have the good guys wear black. This nicely illustrates that aspects of a setting, such as the clothing/uniform each side wears, helps with characterization. Or, at least it can. 

On the topic of business suits, in The Matrix the enemy was an outside force but often the enemy is closer to home, sometimes it even wears a seemingly friendly face. In the movie, The Firm, Mitch McDeer’s opposition was the people he worked beside everyday and they all looked alike. They wore the same thing, they had the same kind of house, the same kind of car (expensive!). They were “one happy family”™. The sameness was part of what made the opposing force so insidious and scary.

Setting Reflects The Protagonist's Need

In general, at the beginning of a story the protagonist has a weakness, a need. For instance, take Susan. She has a weakness that prevents her from realizing her full potential, something that prevents her from living a life that is as meaningful as it could be. In order for Susan to meet this need, she must change. But this is mixed news for Susan because there is no change without destruction, without sacrifice, and that brings turmoil, pain, and possibly death.

The storyteller’s goal is to construct a suitable crucible for heroes-to-be like Susan, one that will challenge her and, ultimately, singe off the bits that have to go to make room for new and improved bits.

The Hero’s Desire

A story world should explain the hero's desire for their goal. In “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere's desire is to never, ever, be poor again and his specific goal is to make partner in a wealthy law firm. At the beginning of the film he’s poor and working as a waiter while still receiving top grades from one of the best law schools in the world, Harvard Law School. That nicely illustrates Mitch’s ambition and intellect. 

Here’s another example. (I know I used this example too much!) Luke Skywalker was a skilled pilot but, while his uncle kept promising he could leave the family’s moisture farm and attend the academy, something always came up to prevent it. A droid would break down, the crop wouldn’t be as big as expected, and so on. This meant they couldn’t afford to hire someone to replace Luke, so he felt obliged to stay.

Another thing. I see Luke’s landspeeder as a representation of this conflict between Luke and his family. It reminds us of Luke’s desire to become a pilot as well as the sacrifices he has to make. (That, and landspeeders are just plain cool!)

The Opposing Force

A story wouldn't be much fun if the protagonist wanted something then, without further ado, got it. They must be opposed. This is the job of the antagonistic force that opposes the protagonist in their attempt to attain their goal. 

There is a symmetry between the hero and villain. Whatever the hero’s specific goal is, it needs to be something that both the villain and he want, but which at most one of them can achieve. Both can fail but both can never win

The Hero Confronts Death

At some point the hero will suffer a devastating setback. It will seem to him that his quest is over. It is at this point that the hero often has an epiphany, a revelation. 

How could the story world reflect this, both the danger and the epiphany? 

This is going to sound obvious because it is obvious… I could say ‘dead obvious’ but I think that would be going too far! ;) Anyway. Often the hero confronts death in a setting that brings death to mind. So, how do we do that? What makes us fear? Well, the dark. So caves, dungeons, crypts, pits--sometimes even one’s bedroom at the witching hour! What was that noise? Footsteps? But no one’s home! 

In Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke and his allies are nearly crushed in a trash compactor. Countless movies have the hero visit a creepy old house, or abandoned insane asylum. Perhaps the hero is lured into a cellar, or a dark and musty basement (the Paranormal Activity movies), and then is brought close--even symbolically--to death. (Also, sometimes at this point one of the hero’s allies dies. In a mystery this will often give the hero/sleuth a valuable clue.)

That said, the hero could confront their mortality anywhere; for example, in a law office or as the hero runs through a crowded city. There are no hard and fast rules. The only thing you can take to the bank is that if you don’t write anything you’ll never have a story! So write!

-- --

I think that’s a good place to stop for today. I’ve only blogged half my chapter, so I’ll try and get the second half up tomorrow. In the meantime, good writing!

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)
Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)
Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)
Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles
Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense
How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)
Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Sunday, February 7

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Character (Part 3)


This post is a continuation of yesterday's post BUT in what follows I don't talk about horror stories. Alas. Horror stories are very fun to talk about--or even to write about. Here I go on about the various wonderful ways in which your setting can affect your story.

2. Setting And Character

I've already written about the importance of the social environment of the story for character development (see the links at the end of this article), and given that we are social critters, it’s obvious that it would be significant, but I want to step back for a minute and ask what will at first seem like a silly question: Why? 

Why is it the case that the social environment is so important for character development? It is the social environment, the society, that sets the rules for what counts as acceptable conduct. The society sets up the specific expectations for your character, how they should act, who they should love, what profession they should study, and so on. The social environment sets up what the society thinks the character’s goals should be, it sets up the default value structure. 

(And this is one reason that the first five or ten percent of a story is so important, because you’re setting up these background conditions, conditions that everything else in your story will contrast against.)

Of course your character will depart in various ways from what is expected of them, and that’s good. That creates conflict. However, everything depends upon making it clear what values your hero is departing from.

Shared Customs

As Dwight V. Swain says in his excellent book, Creating Characters: How To Build Story People, shared customs (customs such as which clothes are acceptable for which occasions) and appropriate behaviors (for example, how to behave in a church as opposed to a temple as opposed to a mosque as opposed to a synagog as opposed to...) are just the sort of things that breathe life into, and that differentiate, characters.

When developing a character I ask myself what social rules and practises, what rituals and traditions, this character follows.

Another thing I try to pay attention to when creating a character is the distinction between knowing a social custom and following it. Perhaps a character knows that Custom A is mandatory, but do they follow it? Perhaps they follow it in public but not in private. Perhaps if they are given an opportunity to depart from the norm, they will. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, that says something about them.

3. Setting And The Senses

In the classic movie Die Hard, the initial setting was a Christmas Party, in Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the initial settings was a long abandoned ancient temple. The particular setting of your story is essential to bringing the world to life. How do things come to life for us? What makes us pay particular attention to something? 

In a word, vividness. 

Everything, of course, comes to us through our senses--smell, taste, sight, touch or hearing--and then is stitched together, somehow, to create our own personal version of this wonderful world in which we live. For us to pay attention to one particular thing, for it to be memorable, it must stand out from the rest.

As Dwight V. Swain writes in Creating Characters, our world is made of hot, sticky, ashvalut and looming, grey skyscrapers, barking dogs and purring cats with bottomless copper eyes; it's made of cheese so pungent it will make your eyes water, and hot bitter coffee, fresh squeezed apple juice, and hot sticky cinnamon buns. It's made of the comforting weight of linen and the harsh blare of car horns. 

Sensory impressions bring a story to life, immersing readers in the story world, wrapping it around them, drawing them ever deeper into the fantasy you're weaving. Swain writes that "the seen, the heard, the smelled, the touched, the tasted" are how we spin a world into being. So, what is the takeaway? Make your images vivid.

4. Setting and Conflict

Conflict isn’t everything, but if you don’t have conflict you don’t have a story. 

Conflit is what results when a character's efforts to attain a goal are opposed or frustrated. What sorts of things oppose a character's efforts to attain their goal? Quite a few. Another character, sure. Often it is that character themselves! But many times what opposes a character's efforts to attain their goal is the setting itself. 

For instance, perhaps your protagonist, Hank, is a teenager and his goal is to win the prestigious Sunnyside Surfing Competition but he can't win unless he trains. That’s a problem because Hank's family recently moved from the sunny, sandy beaches of Sunnyside California to the snowy confines of Montreal Canada and it's the middle of December. That means Hank can’t surf, so he can’t train for the competition. So he’s not going to win. Here just a change of setting sets up a problem, an obstacle to the protagonist reaching his goal.

Increasing Conflict

Have you ever watched the television show, Monk? The screenwriters were fabulous at using setting to introduce conflict. Here’s the description of the show from IMDB:

“The series follows Adrian Monk, a brilliant former San Francisco detective, who now consults the police as a private consultant who battles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

For example, in Mr. Monk and the Psychic (season 1, episode 3) Monk is introduced to the police commissioner, someone he needs to impress since he wants to get back on the police force.

Monk wants to convince the commissioner that he has his OCD under control. But, Monk is Monk. He is unique. In one scene the commissioner has a few crumbs on his jacket. That’s the setting. Monk is compulsive about cleaning and really wants to brush the crumbs off the commissioner's jacket but he knows that would seem odd to the commissioner and if he seems odd then he won’t get his job back.

What does Monk do? Does he sacrifice his chance to get back on the police force so that he can brush the crumbs of the commissioner’s jacket? Of course he does! And what happens because of this? Conflict.

Here's another example, one you've probably seen countless times in movies and on TV. Two characters are sitting at a table. Perhaps it is a job interview or perhaps it is a first date. The general idea is that it is a situation in which one of them is trying to impress the other. Then a server walks by, stumbles, and spills scalding coffee into the character’s lap who most wants to impress the other. 

How will they react? Will they jump up and yell at the server? Will they be gracious and downplay the incident? Will they turn the incident into a joke and make the other character laugh? How that character handles this situation, this conflict, will help reveal what kind of a person they are.

These are just a few of the ways in which the setting can be used to introduce or increase conflict. The way I think of it, characters are not created to populate a world, a world is created to, as John Truby wrote in The Anatomy of Story, "express and manifest your characters, especially your hero."

And that’s it for today! Thanks for reading, good writing, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)
Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)
Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)
Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles
Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense
How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)
Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, February 6

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)

Writing a Horror Story: Or, how to scare the pants off someone! (Part 2)


(FYI, this post is part of my How to Write a Genre Story series. By rights I should have titled it How to Write a Genre Story: Setting and Mood (Part 2), but I couldn't resist the more evocative title: "How to scare the pants off someone!" There are links, below, to other articles in this series, but you don't need to have read any of them to understand what follows.)

Setting does many things in a story. 

First, it helps establish the mood. Do you want your reader to be horrified (horror/thriller)? Do you want your reader to be curious (mystery)? Do you want your reader to be excited to explore a society dramatically different from their own (fantasy)? And so on.

Second, the setting brings the story world to life through the senses: smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing. 

Finally, the setting of a story is used to introduce, and increase, conflict.

Today I'm going to chat about the first of these, setting and mood. I'll address the second and third points in the very near future.

1. Setting And Mood

Mood draws the reader into a story. Since one of the reasons to tell a story would be to produce a particular emotion in the reader, creating the right sort of mood is crucial.

An Example

How can setting affect mood? 

I think the best way to illustrate this is by talking about horror, both the mood and the genre. So let's say that you’re writing a horror story. Naturally, you want to horrify your readers.

It is so obvious I hate to say it (well, type it), but a person isn't going to be horrified if they aren't afraid. What has to happen for a person to be afraid? They need to perceive a threat and feel vulnerable to that threat. 

For example, imagine that you're walking down your front path to get your mail from the cute letterbox your kids got you for Christmas. You hear a noise, perhaps a footstep, to your right. Out of the corner of your eye you see something pink and frilly. "Oh that's Mrs. Jones," you think. Mrs. Jones is your relentlessly friendly nextdoor neighbour who walks around in a poofy pink dressing gown. You turn to wave but then you see that Mrs. Jones has turned into a shambling, half decayed zombie. And she's heading right for you!

Perhaps you're made of sterner stuff than me, but I would be horrified! I would promptly forget all about getting the mail and, fearing for my life, run inside. Why? Because (of course!) I would be afraid of being turned into the thing my grey haired, slipper-wearing, absent-minded next door neighbour had become. 

I think that fear is, fundamentally, an acknowledgement of, or recognition of, my vulnerability in the face of imminent danger. 

Here is a partial list of what I think evokes a feeling of horror:

- Recognition of the imminence of my death or the deaths of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of my pain or the pain of family/friends.
- Recognition of the imminence of the unknown (or unknown unknowns).
- Recognition of the imminence of my disfigurement or the disfigurement of my family/friends. (Think of slasher films like Saw.)
- Recognition of the imminence of disillusionment or the imminence of destructive revelation.

Now ask yourself: What sort of setting would help communicate these sort of feelings/thoughts to the reader? What would its characteristics be? 

I had intended this post to be about how to evoke more moods than just horror, but here are a few things that I think would contribute to evoking that particular mood.

4 Things that Evoke Horror

The Dark

The dark hides things, it makes the familiar alien, it contains unknown unknowns. Chaotic things lurk out there beyond the light of the bonfire.

I know that observation isn’t original, but the dark is used in (I’m rifling through my memories) every single horror story for a reason.

Isolation

When the hero confronts the Big Bad they can’t receive any help, they have to confront the antagonist all by their lonesome. If the hero is to win and escape the horror, they will have to do it relying on their own wits and strength. This is especially true in the case of a horror story. 

The hero, or the hero and his allies, usually travel to someplace remote and unusual. Someplace they haven't been to before. (And then of course there's a story a local tells them that scares the pants off them but which they discount, and so on.) At the end, the hero's allies have met an unpleasant death but she is still there and now she's really ticked off and has a plan. But all of this is facilitated by the isolated nature of the setting. Otherwise she'd just use her cell phone to call someone for help!

Monsters

The monsters that scare me the most are normal things that have been twisted. I haven't been the same since I read Stephen King's book, Pet Sematary! 

Here's an example of how twisting a familiar setting can create horror. The story is called Bad Dreams and was published anonymously on Dramatica.com but, before you head off there, know that the site is NOT work safe. That's putting it mildly. But this story is fine, it is one hundred percent PG.

‘Daddy, I had a bad dream.’

You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness--it’s 3:23. ‘Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?’

‘No, Daddy.’

The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter’s pale form in the darkness of your room. ‘Why not, sweetie?’

‘Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy’s skin sat up.’

For a moment, you feel paralysed; you can’t take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift.

Great story, right?!

The setting used here is familiar. Intimate. Isolated. The protagonist is in his bedroom with his wife and child. Would the story have the same impact if it was morning, rather than the witching hour? Would the story have the same impact if the exchange took place while the protagonist was preparing to drive to work? I don't think so.

I think that the closeness, the intimacy, of the threat contributes to the isolation. If the wife was in the kitchen or even just out in the hall the situation wouldn't feel so intense and creepy. It's the intimacy of the threat (your wife is lying right behind you) that adds to the feeling of isolation. For example, I'm in a crowd then someone sticks the muzzle of a gun in my back and tells me, "Don't scream, don't talk, just walk." I'm instantly isolated because I can't call for help.

Surprise, Disorientation & Isolation

I've already talked about some of these things, but I need an excuse to trot out one of my favorite horror scenes. This scene--well, I suppose it is more like a series of scenes--occurs toward the end of one of the best horror movies ever made, Alien. (Yes, okay, that's my personal opinion. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.)

Toward the end of Alien, when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) makes her way to the shuttle, she runs down twisting hallways expecting danger at every turn. For me, that was the most suspenseful part of the movie. 

The dark--both of the spaceship and the surrounding, suffocating, emptiness of space--isolates the hero from any possible aid and disorients her, magnifying her fear--which, mysteriously, has become your fear even though you're perfectly safe and sitting snugly on your couch chowing down on buttered popcorn. Or, no, wait! that was me. ;)

Well, that's it for today. If you'd like to chat or ask a question or tell me I'm wrong, leave a comment. Until then, good writing and I'll talk to you again soon.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
Good Storytelling: Give Your Characters Something to Die For (Part One)
Good Storytelling: Goals, Stakes and Consequences (Part Two)
Good Storytelling: Unique Stakes (Part Three)
Good Storytelling: Internal and External Stakes (Part Four of Four)
Writing a Genre Story: Try-Fail Cycles
Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense
How to Write a Genre Story: Conflict
How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Wednesday, February 3

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting (Part 1)

There are many stories that don't fit the hero’s journey. For example, the movies Psycho and The Princess Bride. And that's great! There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers. 

I mention this to emphasize that what I am going to talk about is only one way of doing things. If it doesn’t work for you, or you have developed your own way, great! However, if you are looking for an example of how things could be done, this is one possible way.

Narrative Setting

Narrative setting is the setting where the events of the story take place. 

The story world includes, among other things, the physical environments your characters will encounter as well as the groups they interact with. You can create these environs from your imagination or you can set the story in the actual world. 

Conjuring a story world from nothing but the materials of your imagination may save long hours of research, but keep in mind that the story world (unlike the real one!) needs to be consistent. A happy medium between these two is to set the tale in a fictional world but to use the actual world as a starting point. By changing aspects of the actual world one can often produce a setting that is both unique and plausible.

Social Setting

However you go about crafting your story world, the most time-consuming, intricate and important aspect of a character's environment is their social environment.

What are the rules of your world's societies, rules both written and unwritten? What sorts of pair bonds are sanctioned? What are their norms, their unwritten rules? Are certain practices, certain actions, sanctioned but discouraged? 

Getting finer grained, what kinds of groups, or sub-groups, does the society contain? By this I mean any kind of group: political, recreational, medical, artificial, criminal, natural, sanctioned and unsanctioned. And if you see fit to give your world something like the internet, don't forget online groups!

The most important environment for social creatures such as ourselves is our social environment; our family, our friends, our coworkers, our distant relatives, our facebook friends. Of course, your protagonist need not be sociable! Let your imagination run wild. Anything is fair game as long as it's believable.

Above all, think about ways to introduce opportunities for conflict when creating a story world.

The Elements of Setting: Time

What time of year is it in the story? Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter? If this is a fictional world, does it have seasons? How much time passes in your story? Hours? Days? Months? Years?

Is there anything unusual about the flow of time in your narrative? Is your story written as a stream of consciousness? Does your novel employ time-jumps for flashbacks to convey the story? 

The Elements of Setting: Place

Where does your story take place? What is its geography? Is it an unexplored wilderness or is it well populated? Does the story take place in a town? A city? A tropical jungle? A rainforest? Is the place barren? Lush? Isolated? Densely populated?

Is there water nearby? A pond? A sea? Is the air dry or wet? Is there snow at Christmas time? What sports or hobbies could a person easily engage in given the features of the area? Snowboarding? Skiing? Swimming? Surfing? What sports couldn't your characters do? For example, could your characters swim without risking hypothermia in December?

The Elements of Setting: Circumstances

What social groups is your character involved in? Are they religious? Spiritual? Politically involved? Do they have a large family? Small family? No family? If they're a loner, do they have a network of friends online? What kind of social groups is your character a part of at work? Are they self-employed? Unemployed? Are they the first one at the water cooler in the morning, gossiping, or do they keep to themselves? Do they get along with their boss? 

What are the signs of group inclusion? Do your characters have an accent? Do they wear a uniform, or some sort of special clothing? Do they have markings that identify them as part of a particular group?

Do different groups, different societies or cultural groups, have different accents? Different ways of speaking?

How do these marks of social inclusion, these accents and languages, differ from those which existed a century ago? A millennium ago? Also, what will these groups, these societies, be like a century--or a millennium--from now?

Setting & Scenes

Let’s talk about setting as it relates to each scene.

I've touched on some of this information above, but let's get specific. Stories are made up of scenes and scenes occur at a place and a time. 

For each scene, in addition to knowing what season it is, know (if outdoors) what the weather is like, what characters are in the scene, what happened just before the scene started and what will happen just after the scene ends. Also know what time of day it is. Is it morning or high noon? Nighttime? Twilight? The witching hour? You don’t have to--you likely shouldn’t!--put all this information in the scene, but it helps to know.

What associations do the main characters have about this time? What memories might it invoke? For instance, a character might wake during the witching hour and remember a nightmare they had as a child. (This introduces conflict: the character would like to sleep but the nightmare, and now the memories invoked by it, trap them in the waking world.)

Place: Indoors? Outdoors?

If the scene takes place outdoors what's the weather like? Is the sun hidden behind clouds turning day into twilight? Is it nighttime, yet lightning flashes making the landscape bright as day? Is it snowing? Raining? Does the unbearable heat of the sun bake everything to a brittle hardness? Are the characters in the Antarctic? Are they isolated by distance and the unbearable, bitter cold? What associations might they have to snow? How about rain? 

While an adult might hate to wake up to a winter wonderland, a child would likely be overjoyed--especially if it means a snow day!

If the scene takes place indoors, what are the characters' surroundings like? Are they lavish? Poor? Shabby? Drab? Colorful? Ostentatious? Is it a human-made structure or natural, something like a cave. 

Wherever your characters are, were they invited here? Are they comfortable here? Does this place make them feel at home or are they unsure how to act? 

A room could be lavish and yet make a character uneasy because, while they have always desired it, they are unused to such luxury. Another character, one equally uncomfortable in such surroundings, might feel the urge to destroy it. Setting can be used to develop character. Before we examine that, though, let's briefly look at the importance of being able to use setting to generate conflict.

Conflict

I've mentioned this before but it bears repeating. One thing all stories must have, whatever the story world is like, is conflict. Political parties contend with each other. Countries go to war. Social groups hold diametrically opposed yet strongly held views about what constitutes appropriate conduct.

What do your characters believe? Where in this ever shifting maze of interconnectedness do they fit? What groups do they belong to? What do they believe about the world? Which social practices and which social institutions do they embrace? How do these preferences generate conflict both within and between characters?

It is one thing for a character to understand what sort of behavior a particular society expects from its members, and quite another whether, and to what extent, they will go along with it.

Writing Challenge

Select one of your favorite books and try to answer the following questions: 

- What is the setting for the story?
- Does the world have seasons? If so, during what season, or seasons, does the story take place?
- How much time elapses during the story?
- What is the geography of the story world like?
- How many distinct social groups exist and what characteristics distinguish one from another?
- Which aspects of the setting created the most conflict and how was it generated? 

A Thought Experiment

Imagine two societies are remarkably similar but one--Society A--helped defend the surrounding region against an enemy while the other--Society B--did nothing. As a result, many citizens in Society A despise Society B. It's winter, food is scarce, and a fire has ripped through Society B destroying its food reserves. Many in Society B accuse Society A of setting the fire. One thing is certain, unless Society B gets food many of its citizens will starve to death. What will Society B do? Attack the city that defended it? What will Society A do? Share it's food reserves with the city that not only didn't help defend against the enemy but that now accuses them of sabotage?

Given this setting, who would be your protagonist? I think I would choose a child from Society B who discovers evidence that their food reserves were destroyed by the enemy they thought Society A had defeated. But will he be believed?

Okay, that’s it! This was a bit of a grab bag of ideas. I hope you got something from it. I’ll talk to you again soon. In the meantime, good writing!

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like: