Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Here and Now
Sometimes your sins find you out. Imagine my delight – not – when I found my entry into a sort of who-is-who in sf/f and it said something like “often uses the weather for effect and tone.” I knew IMMEDIATELY what they were talking about.
In my first published – I have mentioned that despite the fact I think it’s a fairly decent read, I was still struggling with plotting and making the plotting fit the story, right? – when I became stuck and needed to get myself moving again, I filled in with weather. It rained, it was sunny, it was hot, it... It probably is assigned as a read in meteorological schools the world over.
I feel vaguely guilty about that, because it was eliminated by book two of the series, and now I often go for pages and pages without mentioning a single cloud formation. Unless, of course, it is needed to complicate the characters’ lives – like at the beginning of Gentleman Takes A Chance. (But I guess an entry saying ‘often uses weather to torture characters’ would just make everyone go ‘duh!’)
This is a roundabout way to bring us to our setting, or the place where things take... er... place. I’m highly in favor of setting. It prevents your characters from floating around in ether sometimes – if you remember to give us expressions, say – as giant floating heads, or perhaps (I knew a beginning writer who was notorious for this) just giant floating expression-components (her eyes twinkled. Her mouth twitched. Her nose followed the scent – then realized it was lost and came back to hang out with the mouth and the eyes.) Seriously, if I had to list it from most important to least, my list of why you should spend some time thinking of your setting and making sure it feels “real” to us would go something like this:
1- It gives a sense of reality to the scene. No matter how important the argument or how hot the lovemaking, it rarely takes place in a void. (Unless the characters are aliens.) So give us how people around are looking at them as their voices rise, or perhaps the sound of birds stops overhead. Give us the sheet getting tangled around an ankle. Throw us a crumb so we remember your characters exist.
2 - Worldbuilding. You can bury any number of worldbuilding and even historical clues into setting. “They walked past the tower of Peace, which was built to commemorate the establishment of Peace III after Peace I and Peace II were bombed out of existence.” Or “He leapt from his flying car.” Or “She looked up towards the wizard’s castle” or... “He could smell the unicorn pens. Someone had forgotten to muck them out again.”
3 - Stage business. “Said” might be invisible and it’s certainly preferable to “interrupted”, “objected” or – shudder – “ejaculated” as a dialogue tag, but if you have a page of “he said” “she said” or worse, “he said,” “he said” it can get pretty tedious. Besides, the characters start to feel – to me at least – like they have no bodies and are just talking mouths. Stage business avoids the need to say “he said” like this: “No.” George ran his finger along the shelf and stared at the dust on the fingertip. “No, I don’t believe I found your cigarette case.” It also allows you to build on the character. For instance, perhaps George is an incurable toucher-of-things, not a nitt picky householder and perhaps we can show him touching and fidgeting with everything. (If this is a murder mystery, he probably absent-mindedly picked up that case and set it somewhere.
4- To emphasize moods or bridge an awkward spot. I.e., describing the space ship might just work to give a sense of distance from your last scene before you launch into the new one – because you want to give the idea a month has passed, and that’s hard to believe internally. To make your character seem depressed, you can have him notice peeling paint and dirty floors, for instance, as he goes into a new place.
5- Special effects. Movies pay tons for this. It took me until the year before I was first published to realize people like them, even when all you’re giving them is a description. If your character is in a magical glade, by all means, hit the reader with the eldritch.
A couple of caveats, (they took me long to learn, so I’m going to share them!) Try not to have similar scenes take place in similar places, because it will “feel” repetitive, even if it isn’t. So, don’t have your characters argue in the car twice. Move that second argument to the shopping mall. If you’re writing an historical, try to keep the setting as period as possible and use the opportunity to throw in those cool bits of research you can’t put anywhere else. (i.e., instead of infodumps that make the reader suffer for YOUR art.)
All this said, when I’m stuck for a story, I’ve found starting out in a diner (no, I don’t know why I’m fascinated with diners) usually invites a story to come along...
Do you have a go-to setting? What other ways have you found to use setting? (I’m
sure I missed half a dozen.) What’s your favorite way of making a setting feel real?
*the picture is my son's cartoonified version of me, as "super writer" in front of my favorite diner. Yeah, he DID "superhero" the body a bit.*
Also, for those who haven't checked it out yet, I have a new blog at http://accordingtohoyt.com I even manage to blog almost every day.