Building Better Plots

In Building Better Plots, Robert Kernen provides a quick quiz to help you decide if your subject matter is strong enough to sustain a novel. I thought these questions were interesting enough to pass along:

Does your concept create obstacles that effectively challenge the characters? If so, which specific elements will be the source of that challenge?

Does your concept provide a strong backdrop for exploring the strengths and limitations and psychology of your characters? What specific elements does the plot have that provide vivid comparisons and contrasts that will delineate your character in intriguing ways?

Does your concept provide a strong environment for the messages and themes you want to explore? What metaphors and motifs grown naturally out of that environment will illuminate those themes and messages?

Does your concept provide any realistic hooks that will make it easy for the audience to relate to? What elements will they relate to? Even if you are writing science fiction or fantasy, you will want to give your audience some element to which they can connect their sympathy.

Does your concept provide enough tension to hold the audience’s interest? What are those sources of tension?

The questions seem a bit complicated to help create a story — by the time you’ve answered them all, you’d be sick of the story — but it seems they would be ideal as a tool to help clarify a muddy middle.

Amanda, Amanda, Amanda

Since writing during this month is about word count, not producing a finished work, I haven’t spent a lot of time or thought on visuals to ground potential readers in the scene, I just jumped in with the character and started writing. During rewrites, I’ll go back and add the setting — it’s not a good idea to start every every scene with the character’s name (though many writers do it). Here are some of the sentences I temporarily used to open new scenes. Poor Amanda.

Amanda opened her husband’s closet and stared at his clothes, wondering if she’d ever be able to get rid of them.

Amanda pushed the grocery cart through the aisles, looking for foods that didn’t remind her of meals with David, but every time she reached for a can, bottle, or box, her stomach clenched. 

Amanda checked her emails.

Amanda went from eating nothing but yogurt to eating cookies, candy, cake, crackers, chips — anything she could grab and eat without cooking or having to sit at a table to dine.

Tired of crying, of holding the shattered pieces of herself together, Amanda hugged David’s robe-wrapped ashes one more time and climbed out of bed.

Amanda stared at her reflection in the mirror. The woman looked familiar, as if she had known her intimately long ago, but the woman seemed to have nothing to do with her todays.

Amanda felt her life, her love for David rewinding.

Amanda checked to make sure the box was empty.

Amanda woke to light seeping in from between the slats of the closed blinds.

Amanda wandered through the house, seeing not the shabby furniture, the shelves overloaded with books, the 20-inch out-of-date television, but the home she and David had created.

Frenzied with grief-induced adrenaline, Amanda yanked open the door to David’s closet and slammed his underwear into a garbage bag.

The Place is More Than Scenery

I am pleased to welcome Malcolm R. Campbell as a guest on this blog. Not only has he left myriad thoughtful comments on my posts, he has written one of my favorite books, a delightful mystery called Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire. Though Jock Stewart is a throwback to the Hollywood’s film noir reporters, Campbell’s delight in words and wordplay shows through the hardbitten shell, and the novel has a gleeful undertone. If you are searching for a Christmas gift for a booklover, look no further.  You don’t have to take my word that this is a wonderful book, you can see for yourself. Click here to read: an excerpt, or the first chapter, or download 35% free at Smashwords. About scenery, Campbell writes:

“The breakout novelist does not merely set a scene; she unveils a unique place, one resonant with a sense of time, woven through with social threads and full of destinies the universe has in store for us all. She does not merely describe a setting, she builds a world. She then sets her characters free in that world to experience all it has to offer.” –Donald Maass, “Writing the Breakout Novel”

In his 1974 classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert Pirsig said that he disliked traveling across country by car because the world outside the windows was too much like television. Pirsig preferred a motorcycle because it placed him solidly within the place as an engaged participant rather than a passive observer.

Young writers often focus on plot and characters, viewing the setting’s importance as minimal, a dated nineteenth century writing technique or filler to be skipped over in a modern novel. Their resulting fiction resembles a cheaply drawn animated film with talking characters in the foreground and sequence of meaningless doors, trees, and buildings scrolling past in an endless loop in the background—like the Pirsig’s unimportant scenery outside a car window.

Maass writes that “In the twenty-first century, we may have less patience for scenery, but we certainly expect a novel to show us the world as a vital force in which the characters move.”  The reality of this vital world is built on specific detail that goes beyond unsupported assertions such as “a grand old house” or “a lovely meadow” to the very heart of the place the characters willingly or unwillingly find themselves.

Place, like everything else in a story, is filtered through the character’s point of view. This makes it an interactive tool that engages all of the senses. It facilitates the creation of three-dimensional characters, a harmonious or counterpoint tone and mood, and a dynamic plot and action. Readers see, hear, touch, taste and feel only what the character perceives and believes about places. One character sees the forest as random trees, another knows their names. One character sees house as structures, another notices architectural styles. One character running from a pursuer finds a random boat and causes it to founder, another understands how to escape in it.

Detail supports assertions about the place, bringing an otherwise vague setting into three-dimensional authenticity. What–within the POV character’s knowledge and experience–makes the house grand and the meadow lovely? Symbolically, psychologically or empirically, place always tells the reader something about the character, plot and theme.

It’s a barometer indicating a character’s circumstances and attitude. For example, a snow-covered path is exciting during a sleigh ride but grim when one is lost in the woods. Frightened characters experience dark houses differently than confident characters. Same woods, same houses, different interpretations.

When place is utilized as a vital component in fiction, the characters experience, interpret and interact with settings like men or women on motorcycles rather than bored kids staring out the window of a car on a family vacation. Whether authors write about clean, well-lighted places or dank, dimly lit places, they’re not showing readers random backdrops. They’re showing worlds that mirror the characters’ moods and circumstances, worlds those characters must often navigate or fail to navigate en route to the climax of the story.

When readers hear the oak falling in the forest, feel the harsh limestone cliff below a mountain’s summit, and smell the dank stink of Cyprus swamp, then the setting has been well conjured, the spell properly cast, and the magic of enchantment into an imaginary world has been accomplished. At this moment, the novel’s world is more real than the reader’s comfortable chair.

See also: Pat Bertram and Malcolm R. Campbell Discuss the Writer’s Journey

Setting the Scene

Sherilyn Winrose, author of Safe Harbor published by Second Wind Publishing, talks about setting the scene:

I find when I’m writing it is like a movie playing in my head and I tend to get wrapped up in the action, dialog and characters, forgetting to paint the scene. So I find myself going back to add visuals later. Often times more than once. Doing sweeps for clothes, decor and so on.

What are my character’s wearing? Do I have the correct styles, fabrics for the period? Do I know the names of the fabrics, styles I’m using? Sometimes I don’t and have to looking for them or have long chunky sentences.

The Costume Gallery

The Fabric Store

Whether it’s a Regency or a Contemporary setting knowing what you are talking about takes a bit of research. 

What a character wears says as much about her as the way she interacts with other characters. Clothes can give subtle hints to things yet to be revealed, or negate the need to explain she’s modest or eccentric or at the top of fashion.

Where do our character’s live? An Arts and Crafts/Californian bungalow or a  Victorian style house. Do you know the different Victorian architecture styles?  As the author it’s your job to be precise in your settings.

Queen Anne is a specific Victorian type not a generic term for the era.  Queen Ann is my personal favorite.

Dave’s Victorian Houses

Are your characters Frank Lloyd Wright, free from clutter, streamlined? Or are they stuck in the eighties with dripping oil lamps and enormous water bed furniture? Or somewhere in between with Gustov Stickley’s clean lines which lend themselves to a homey feeling consistent with the Arts and Craft movement?

FM4 Furniture Styles

Clem Lambine’s Period Homes

As I see it; there should be nothing in a novel which doesn’t serve the purpose of the story. Whether it’s a chintz tea set, Mission style furniture, the color of the walls, carpet or lack there of.

While they might seem inconsequential, what you dress your story with adds layers to characters and the mood of the story. Can you imagine Dracula living in a 70’s split-level? How about Queen Victoria in a sod house?

Knowing what you are talking about can make the descriptive short and unobtrusive. Unless you are in Queen Elizabeth I court it shouldn’t take paragraphs or a page to set the scene or describe a gown.

When I find that I’ve done just that, a lot of it hits the cutting room floor in edits.

So does window dressing happen as you write your first draft?

Do you write in layers, going back to add color to the script?

Is any of the background conscience thought or does it just happen/dictated by the characters themselves?

Do you use back drops and accents as a means to propel the story, or just as fill?

The Setting Should Be Integral to the Story

Characters interact with the setting as much as they do with the plot and other characters. In fact, setting can be used as another character, one that is implacable and without reason. Like a character, the setting can have scars, weaknesses, moods, even a personality.

The setting should be integral to the story. It needs to be more than a backdrop for or an introduction to the events. A static description adds nothing to the story’s purpose. The setting should not be any old place, but a unique place that has meaning for the character. Setting can work for or against the character, but either way, it must be dynamic, otherwise it’s just filling space.

Setting can create a mood. It can suggest the character’s motives. It can predestine character in the same way we are all creatures of our environment. A person who grew up in the shadow of mountains is different from someone born by the sea. A child living in a mansion is different from a child of the streets.

Setting can help move plot along. Whenever things slow down, the introduction of a real or perceived change in the setting can deepen the character’s conflicts. Maybe the character sees things he never noticed before; maybe those familiar things now seem menacing. Or perhaps the weather can take a disastrous turn.

Every description of a place should have a memorable quality that hints at the story’s meaning. In Story, Robert McKee wrote, “The irony of setting vs. story is this: the larger the world, the more diluted the knowledge of the writer, therefore the fewer his creative choices and the more clichéd the story. The smaller the world, the more complete the knowledge of the writer, therefore the greater his creative choices. Result: an original story without clichés.”

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Can the Setting Be a Character in the Story?

The setting of a book should not be static, a mere backdrop for the story, but should have personality, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, scars, and moods. At least that’s what books on writing tell us.

In my previous novels, I tried to make the settings necessary to the stories, to show how they couldn’t have happened anywhere else in exactly the same way. Because my stories all take place in Colorado, by the very fact of geography, mountains play a part if only to shadow the humans living at their foot.

My current work in progress is different in that the world changes constantly. The mountains are always there giving my hero a reference point, but cities change to plains and plains change to seas. My hero has to try to come to terms with his constantly changing environment, which creates most of the conflict for the first part of the story. Because of this, I’m wondering if I can turn the environment into a character. It would certainly make the first part stronger because during much of it the hero is alone. It would give the book an entirely new dimension. And it would be a challenge for me.

Despite its changeability, though, the environment doesn’t want anything, so I’m not certain it can be a character. Doesn’t a character have to be dynamic with its own wants and needs? Even if it is possible for an environment to be a character, can I create one that has wants and needs without my anthropomorphizing it? Maybe the environment, like my hero, wants to be left alone. Maybe, the environment, also like my hero, stoically endures what is happening to it. But how would I show this from only my hero’s point of view?

I remember discussions in literature classes about those very things, and I didn’t get it. No matter how dramatic a setting was and how much it influenced the characters, it still always seemed to me to be static. Yet here I am, trying to put something more into my setting than perhaps needs to be there.

The only thing to do, I suppose, is keep all this in the back of my mind as I am writing, and if I can make the setting more alive, do so. If not, leave well enough alone. The story is already developing too many depths for what was supposed to be a silly little tale.

Imploding Lifeless Descriptions

Although I am not a fan of long descriptive passages, or even short ones that add nothing to the story, I do think that setting is important. We readers need to know where we are, and why. We need enough description to get our imaginations flowing, though not so much that we feel the story is the author’s alone; we want to be a participant in the process.

Setting need not be static. It can be a character with its own personality, scars, weaknesses, strengths, emotions, and moods. Like the other characters in the story, we should get to know it little by little, not in big chunks of exposition. And, like the characters, it should change; or at least our perception of it should change.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the space given to description should be in relation to its importance. There is no point in writing a long description of a setting that will disappear from the book before the readers have fixed it in their minds. For one thing, it delays the action unnecessarily; for another, readers won’t forgive the false impression.

For my work in progress, I envisioned a fabulous pet store. It was a standalone building with its own parking lot. The building was in the shape of a U, with the main room across the front and two wings. Because it was once a doctor’s office, there were several little rooms in each wing. My character, Chip, created special habitats in the rooms, like a mini forest for the owl and a large terrarium for the reptiles. In the center of the U was a courtyard that the doctors once used for an outdoor eating area, but Chip had enclosed it with wire mesh, filled it with exotic plants and small trees, and used it as a retreat for the birds and small animals.

As I was designing the store, I encountered several problems: the birds were tropical, and would not have done well outside in Denver’s harsh climate. The terrariums for the reptiles would turn into charnel houses because the creatures would eat each other. But even with the problems, I was loath to implode my store; I spent a lot of time creating it and I thought it was a great idea.

Then I started writing it. To make it more than a lifeless description such as the one here, I had to give it several paragraphs and for what? Within a few short chapters the store would disappear (along with the entire neighborhood). It didn’t make sense to give so much space to something that was obviously unimportant when a plain old store would work just as well and with fewer descriptive words to delay the action. Besides, anything the fabulous store said about Chip was more entertainingly portrayed by his relationship with the animals.

While my setting — Denver in the not too distant future — is important, the store wasn’t. Whatever words I would have wasted on the store, I will spend creating a living, changing, vital setting for Chip to interact with. Because of that interaction, I won’t need long descriptive passages for readers to skim over.

That’s the plan, anyway.