Mar 15, 2010

Using Settings Effectively for Fiction

Where in the World is your Story?

This week in my editing course, I have been going over the settings used in my novel, Dog Show Detective. The basic idea is to go through the index cards that identify each scene and make a note of the setting, background items or gimmicks used that relate to the world the novel takes place in. 

What does this tell us? 
The purpose of our setting and how it shapes the characters and story. And it should shape them. In psychology we are taught the importance of nurture vs nature in forming the human psyche (and all living animals). Anything that happens in your novel is bound to be from the seeds of the environment, if a bird flies south for the winter, then it's probably getting pretty darn cold in the north.

I saw a tele-movie recently about a mystery that took place at a dog show. Needless to say I was pretty excited to watch it as my mystery also takes place in a dog show. My mystery took place in the show because that's what the mystery is about. Clues involve breeding of dogs, microchipping, breed related illnesses and more. The movie I watched only barely related to the dog show, it was a murder that could have happened anywhere, but the writers said 'hey, let's stick it in a dog show'. My point is, if your world is not part of your story, but just a background then you may as well have your story play out on a stage with no sets, because it will look fake.

Think about each scene and where it takes place. WHY does it take place there? What would happen if it was somewhere more public or more private. How might that change what happens, or what is said. What obstacles could appear from your location? And how many setting do you have - does your manuscript read like a play on a single stage or is it overflowing with location changes that could confuse the reader?

Another thing to consider with your world is how you portray it to the reader. Don't just describe the room, have a character make an action that interacts with the setting, like picking up an outdated magazine from the side table and glancing at the other patient pretending to be interested in Woman's Day's news that Nicole Kidman was splitting with Tom Cruise. 

Dialogue is an effective tool for describing the location or setting. Having your character order a coffee and cake would pretty much let the reader know where they are.

I've been a little addicted to the podcast Writing Excuses lately, they're informative and funny. There is one on 'roleplaying'. This is a new concept to me (although it's been lurking behind my back for some time). In relation to novel writing, it is when you have actors (or in my case - family) act out a scene you've written to see how well it works. The podcaster suggested a need for flexibility and improv (letting the actors come up with their own lines). This is a great way to find action lines and dialogue to show your setting. 

I'm going to give this a go as soon as my MC, uh, I mean daughter, gets back from her school camp. I should also get a few inspirational actions or lines from her sidekick Miniature Schnauzer (or maybe he'll just nap through it). If nothing else, it should be fun. 
My Muse(s)

I've made the commitment to Scrivener after using my free trial. The biggest selling point for me was that each document you create (which can represent a chapter or scene or just a section of your manuscript) comes with an index card for you to record a synopsis of that section. Then you can view all the index cards and swap them around during editing to get the layout you want for your novel. In both the writing course and the editing course I do, we use index cards for identifying elements like conflict and character. If you are a Mac user and you would like to check out this program go to Literature and Latte - Scrivener and watch the tutorials.

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  1. Hi Charmaine

    I'm really enjoying reading of your editing journey, especially since I've just started an editing course myself. Your tips regarding setting are wonderful and certainly something I will read again. I know my setting is a bit too general right now and I need to flesh things out a bit more and ground the story in the environment. I love the sound of Scrivener, but as a PC user I don't have that option :( (Maybe my next computer can be a Mac!)

  2. I think this is great advice. I'll say that my work has always tied in at least a little with the setting of the piece, but not until recently did I realize how much more connected these two elements can be. It's more exciting now for me to work on tying everything together.

  3. Charmaine--Your conclusions about the importance of setting are very insightful. I think use setting to reveal character is a technique that many writers could benefit from, but not enough use.

    For example, showing your MC locked in a prison cell in the opening scene immediately tells us a lot about that character, and opens many questions which will need to be answered by the text, all of which equals reader engagement.

    BTW, thanks for stopping by my place and for the follow. I appreciate it.

  4. I have a question for you, where do you take your editing course? Is it online or is it something you attend.

    I looked up Scrivener and it looked amazing. I think I might give it a try.

    Great post.


  5. Thanks for the comments!
    Karen: I was always PC too, Mac is new to me, I had Plot Builder with the PC and liked that, but it didn't have the synopsis cards that Scrivener has. PS Your website looks great, I remember when you were planning to get one on twitter :-)
    David: Thanks for stopping by, I share as I learn so I'm happy if it's helpful to others.
    Jon Paul: I loved your post on sea-monkeys! I am afraid I've proven myself to be a mass murderer of the little civilisation time and time again (but I might try again, I've got a good feeling this time).
    Ann: The course I'm doing is online (I always find that easier time-wise) and it's called 'How To Revise Your Novel' there's an image on the left if you click it will take you there, it's a Holly Lisle course and I find it is clearing up the whole process of editing, mainly because I had no idea where to start!

  6. oops - I said David and meant Davin. Apologies :-)