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Settings: Bland & Vivid

In wrapping up this series on setting in fiction writing, I’d like to demonstrate the difference strong, well-presented setting can make.

Writers who compose their settings with bland generalities and cliches, supply only vague information, avoid specific details, and omit a viewpoint character’s physical senses and awareness of the location are shortchanging their readers.

Vivid settings come alive because of specific details, descriptive passages that employ dominant impressions, and the utilization of a character’s physical senses where and when appropriate.

Consider the following:

Bland:  Sitting at a small table in her sister’s new kitchen, Jane sipped her coffee while she pondered how to ask Sheila a question about their father’s finances.

Vivid:  New kitchen? What a laugh. Jane sat down gingerly on an old chair that creaked under her ninety-eight pounds. None of the chairs matched at a rickety little table with peeling paint. Who used peeling paint in a kitchen? It looked unsanitary, like chickens had roosted on it for thirty years in a barn, and it probably had lead paint. Sheila was so proud of her cabinets–bought cheap at a thrift store–like that was something to brag about. They didn’t match either and could be infested with bug eggs just waiting to hatch out. Jane eyed her coffee–served in a tawdry souvenir mug with a faded map of Florida emblazoned on the side. Her first sip scalded her mouth, making her gasp and bang her mug too hard on the table. A flake of green paint floated down from beneath the table, landing on her foot. Why did Sheila buy such bitter blends? Why did she overbrew the coffee until it was so scorched and hot that drinking it was an ordeal? If she couldn’t afford decent mugs, why didn’t she go to Target and buy an inexpensive box of them like normal people instead of rooting through filthy thrift shops for the garbage castoffs of society? Now she wanted Jane to admire her kitchen when it looked like something even hippies in the past century would have thrown away. Jane was here to discuss their father’s financial ruin before it was too late to save the money, but Sheila refused to listen. She kept chattering about how the bargains of scratch-and-dent appliances had enabled her to buy a behemoth cast-iron sink off Craigslist that probably cost even more than it weighed.

*

One sentence versus a too-lengthy, dense paragraph. Hmmm, does that mean vivid has to be long and overblown?

Not at all! I would take the “vivid” paragraph and break it apart into small pieces that can be dropped into the dialogue between Jane and Sheila. If the sisters are talking at cross-purposes–critical Jane wanting to discuss Dad and romantic, creative Sheila wanting to evade the topic–then the details can be sprinkled throughout where appropriate.

Let’s try another comparison.

Bland:   Jimmy hurried anxiously along the school hallway, afraid he’d be late for class.

Vivid:  Intent on breaking through the locker gridlock so he wouldn’t collect another tardy slip, Jimmy juked around knots of girls giggling together, collided with a scrawny seventh-grader with big glasses and a cowlick, and trampled the foot of Arnie Bixmaster, a looming football bruiser with shoulders as broad as the doorway to algebra class.

*

Even as we imagine the trouble Jimmy’s about to be in when Arnie the giant–maybe nicknamed The Beastmaster–turns on him, can’t you hear the noise of hundreds of voices punctuated by slams of steel locker doors? If the “vivid” sentence evokes memories of your schooldays, it’s done its job.

Sometimes settings fail to do their part when they are simply a vague cliche. Lazy writers tend to rely on old, worn standbys without realizing that whatever made them work originally has long since faded from overuse. Writers also tend to fall into the vagueness trap when they haven’t visited a setting, or done their research by talking to people who have.

*

Bland:  Esme Jones had always dreamed of visiting Paris in the spring. She walked along the city streets, drinking in the sights, and spent her afternoons at the Louvre, gazing at the wonderful art hanging there. She planned to eat at sidewalk cafes, and practice her high school French on the locals.

Vivid:  Esme Jones was lost. Instead of taking the Metro from her hotel to the Louvre, she’d decided to walk. Her phone had no signal, and her GPS wasn’t working. Rain pelted down, blurring the tall apartment buildings and narrow, unevenly paved streets into a gray smear. The flower markets had shut, with rolled-down awnings, leaving only a few trampled blossoms of pink and yellow lying on the sidewalk, which meant she couldn’t even take any pictures for her Instagram feed. What a rotten, miserable day. April in Paris was a lie! All it did was rain, and she was sick of it. Pedestrians had vanished, driven indoors by the weather. She had no idea of where she was or how to get back to her hotel. Telling herself to stay calm, she cut along what she thought was an alley leading back to a larger street. Instead it grew narrower and more crooked before opening to a tiny square surrounded by looming old buildings of brick and stone jammed right up to the sidewalk. It was a dead end, but she found herself pausing just to look. Ornate iron fencing surrounded a gnarled almond tree. Its delicate pink blossoms shimmered in the rain, and Esme inhaled the fragrance. At each corner of the fence stood rusting urns of white flowers she didn’t recognize. The blooms spilled over the sides, cascading to the ground. A worn statue of a cherub peered out from beneath a shrub, its rounded face dotted with lichen. As she clutched the cold iron spindles to stare at this enchanted little garden, Esme forgot about how wet and chilled she was. The rain suddenly stopped, leaving the air damp and still. She caught the scent of freshly baked bread. There must be a bistro nearby where she could ask directions. But maybe first she’d eat some thick, hearty bourguignon.

Pardon, mademoiselle!” called out a brisk feminine voice.

Esme turned and saw a middle-aged woman in a white belted raincoat and beret walking toward her. Beautifully made up, with dark hair cut in a stylish bob, the woman was slender and very chic. She carried a marketing basket filled with radishes, carrots, and several tiny parcels wrapped in paper and tied with string. A white West Highland Terrier in a bright blue raincoat trotted on its lead beside her.

*

Leaving Paris behind, let’s try a different location:

Bland:  Mineet parked the car at the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico and got out to look at the dunes. It wasn’t what she’d expected.

Vivid:  As soon as Mineet exited her rental Escalade at the White Sands National Monument, she was blinded by intense noon sunlight reflecting off dunes as white as sugar. Even her polarized Ray Bans couldn’t quite handle the glare. She squinted, her eyes watering, and lifted her hands to shield her face. After a few seconds, she managed to open her eyes to a slit, enough to see miles of sand stretching beneath a cobalt-blue New Mexico sky. She crouched to scoop some into an emptied Sonic styrofoam cup because Karthik had asked for a souvenir. The sand was cool to the touch, not at all burning hot like she expected. Completely reflective, she thought in surprise and took off her sandals to dig in her bare brown toes.

*

But what if you’re not writing about trendy kitchens or Paris or New Mexican deserts? What if you’re writing instead about a planet no one has ever been to, a world that exists only in your imagination? No need to worry about cliches there, right? After all, you can’t research if there’s no one to ask about it. So you’ll just make it up, and enjoy yourself.

Even so, details should be specific, vivid, and plausible.

Bland:  Carl Farstrider climbed a hill to survey the valley where his shuttle had landed. It was a broad valley, with a dry river bed. With sunshine and patience, the colonists he’d brought here would do quite well. Satisfied, he opened his communicator. “Farstrider to ship,” he said. “I’ve found where we’ll establish our first settlement.”

Vivid:  Carl Farstrider followed an old trail that zigzagged up the tallest hill overlooking the valley. His surveyor’s map had marked it as being the broadest, flattest of the numerous valleys and mountain ranges covering the upper hemisphere of Ceti Tau VII. There were traces of indigenous building sites–abandoned now–dotted along the upper reaches of the valley, and other indications of past inhabitants such as this trail, but Farstrider wasn’t concerned. Whoever or whatever had once lived here had gone long ago. The colonists waiting aboard his ship now orbiting the planet would probably enjoy such quaint archeological details of an extinct race. Farstrider considered that a few antique artifacts usually gave a place charm. He’d use that angle in his next promotional recruitment campaign.

The wind picked up, blowing harder now with a bite of cold, and he turned his face into it, liking its freshness after months of stale, recycled ship’s air. Clouds obscured a weak G-Class sun, but although it wasn’t robust like Terra’s Sol, it was within the parameters of life support. Putting his binocs to his face, Farstrider scanned the deep canal bisecting the valley floor. No water ran there now, and along this end the canal walls had been dressed with cut stone, cleverly fitted together with no visible mortar. According to his data, an aquifer was located about fourteen klicks northward, at the upper end of the valley. Tomorrow drilling would commence, tapping that essential water supply and pulling it to ground surface. It could flow along this canal and then be held in a large reservoir he planned to build at the south end of the valley.

Once that was done, Farstrider could leave the eighty-seven colonists here to establish the first settlement of a planned forty such communities. Ceti Tau VII was going to be successful, all right, and profitable. That would help him recoup the losses he’d taken with the disastrous Cirenterra colony halfway across the galaxy. He didn’t plan to repeat the mistakes he’d made there. Nope, Ceti Tau VII would prosper, starting with Settlement I right here in Farstrider Valley. No more massacres. No more starved colonists. No more nightmares to haunt him.

 

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Setting & Atmosphere

For this post, we’ll take a page–pun intended–from Edgar Allen Poe, who demonstrated the effectiveness of imagery, atmosphere, and even the weather on a story’s impact.

When creating mood, you should be sure it fits the tropes of your genre. In other words, if you’re writing a romance, you want a setting that contributes to a romantic tone. This means your characters will be falling in love in the Colorado mountains, or a coastal cottage near the surf, or in a steamy jungle, or among the glittering throngs in Monte Carlo’s casino, or in a meadow–not, generally, in a mechanic’s shop, oil tanker factory, rural pig pen, or fast food joint. (Yes, yes, I know that love can strike anyone anywhere, but idealized, romantic settings sell solidly.)

Let’s consider the classic John Ford film, THE QUIET MAN. The movie is styled to present a very idealized view of early twentieth-century Ireland. Protagonist Sean is inclined to romanticize the country where he was born and left as a young boy. He has returned to buy the old family cottage and seek refuge in it from all that’s gone wrong in his life. When he sees Mary Kate for the very first time, she’s leading a flock of sheep across the pasture with the sun shining on her red hair. He is instantly attracted to her beauty and wants to get acquainted.

The movie is based on a short story, and if I recall the prose version correctly, the author depicts Sean in church, sitting behind Mary Kate and being struck by how the hair on the back of her neck swirls in delicate tendrils.

Each version of this first meeting between the couple works well for its particular medium. The film, shot in glorious technicolor which was made for the vivid coloring of actress Maureen O’Hara who plays the character of Mary Kate, needs her introduction to be stronger and more active so she’s out tending sheep with her glorious hair on her shoulders. The short story can present her more quietly, with minute detail of the back of her neck as seen through Sean’s point of view. Both versions convey the same plot event. Both utilize setting–a meadow or inside a chapel–to enhance the romantic aspect of this man’s first notice of the woman he’ll eventually woo and marry.

At the other end of the spectrum, if your story is dramatic and serious, you don’t want a frivolous setting. If you’re writing comedy, you don’t want the gloomy dungeon’s torture pit beneath a rotting castle unless you’re going to exaggerate the gloom, cobwebs, and ghastly screams for humorous or satirical effect. Suspense needs a somber tone. Westerns need to present the glory of a wide, untamed world. Fantasy needs to evoke a sense of enchanted wonder. Science fiction often seeks to portray a technologically advanced world that’s cold and sterile, or a dystopian nightmare of crumbling infrastructure.

Consider the stylists, prop masters, and set dressers in motion pictures. Study your favorite films–ones you’ve seen often enough that you can remain detached from the story action–and observe how imagery and mood are conveyed through the lighting, props, furnishings, and colors of the sets. Are they interior or exterior? If an intense, conflict-heavy scene is set inside a room lined with bookshelves filled with expensive leather-bound tomes and there’s a thick Oriental carpet on the floor beneath a heavy mahogany desk, ask yourself how different the same character confrontation and same dialogue would be if the scene took place outdoors.

When good filmmakers use a setting that superficially seems incongruous with the genre or plot situation, it’s for deliberate effect. In the Alfred Hitchcock classic, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the climactic confrontation between the protagonist and villain happens on a merry-go-round at an amusement park. The innocent children on the ride help to raise the stakes when the operator is accidentally shot and the carousel spins out of control. The wooden horses–normally perceived as happy, frolicking steeds painted in bright, happy colors–become grotesque and grim monsters thanks to Hitchcock’s framing, Dutch angles, and use of black and white film. He turns one of the most beloved of all amusement-park rides into a nightmare, but he does so in a careful, consistent manner that manipulates audience perception. He doesn’t just let his two principal characters struggle on a cheerful, brightly colored ride–thereby muddling the imagery. He shapes mood like the master he is.

You can also use the weather as part of your setting to brighten or darken a story’s tone. Thriller novelist Dean Koontz has done this for years, and it’s quite effective. He draws on thunderstorms and torrential downpours to close in around his beleaguered characters, to create additional adversity for them, and to make the situation tougher as his story people struggle for survival against predators and psychos.

Diction is another tool at our disposal when we’re creating atmosphere. That’s a fancy term for word choice, but again, the details you choose when describing your settings will either enhance your story or undermine it. Utilize adjectives, verbs, and nouns to support the mood you’re trying to convey.

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Setting & Character

Disclaimer:  This post does not mean that I’m finally softening my long-held stance against stories about man versus nature.

Setting, however, does and should affect character–whether that individual is Judah Ben-Hur, a condemned man chained to a Roman-galley oar until he dies, or the young protagonist living in virtual realities in READY PLAYER ONE.

If your characters seem oblivious to their setting, why did you choose an unremarkable location? Instead, why not make setting an inherent part of the situation and story problem? By this, I don’t mean that you should inject a raging typhoon or catastrophe into every plot scenario, but if you strand your characters in a life raft bobbing on the Pacific Ocean, that watery surround had better have an impact on each of them in individual ways. And if you pick Boring, USA, why are you making your writer job harder than it needs to be?

Is your protagonist comfortable with the setting you’ve plunked her into, or is she a fish out of water? As soon as you make that decision, you will be directed by the option you’ve chosen into selecting or rejecting other design possibilities.

Consider the following:

If your protagonist is an intrinsic part of his setting, knows it, is prepared to cope with it, stays calm and competent in dealing with its dangers or eccentricities, etc., then that means the locale is going to recede in prominence. Your hero will meet trouble from other characters who then serve to generate complications and story problems.

On the other hand, if your protagonist is a fish out of water, then her unfamiliarity with the setting can inject danger, misunderstandings, disaster, or–conversely–comedy into your story. An unknown setting helps you present sense-of-place details to readers as your protagonist discovers them. In doing this, you can avoid awkward information-dumps that usually stall story progress.

For example, the vintage film CROCODILE DUNDEE begins in the Australian outback, where civilization is basic and the setting is full of physical dangers. Dundee, however, is an intrinsic part of the setting. He’s comfortable with poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. He knows how to survive in the brush. His surroundings–although hazardous–create no problems for him. The girl, by contrast, is a fish out of water. She’s in physical danger constantly because she doesn’t know the pitfalls to look for or avoid. In the second act of the film, the setting shifts to New York City and flips the circumstances for these two players. Now the girl is comfortable with her big-city backdrop and wise to its ways, but Dundee has become the fish out of water. His initial bewilderment and quirky solutions inject comedy into the story. And, I might add, he adapts very quickly.

Let’s pick a scenario of elderly woman suffering from dementia that wanders away from home.

The setting of such a story immediately dictates character actions and therefore guides the plot events to come.

For example, if this story takes place in the summer in a harsh desert climate miles from the nearest town, then the desert-savvy protagonist will not be able to seek police or county sheriff assistance. The protagonist will be largely on his own. He’ll know to start a search at dawn before temperatures exceed one-hundred degrees, to seek Granny’s tracks in the sand and follow them through the brush, to carry plenty of water and a weapon in case he encounters rattlesnakes or rabid wildlife, and be conscious of the necessity to find Granny before the intense noonday heat gives her sunstroke or she becomes dangerously dehydrated. Unless you’re trying to build suspense, it’s unnecessary to lavish endless details of the search and throw snakes, wild pigs, and fire ants at the protagonist. Instead, summarize the search and let the story action center instead on conflict between the protagonist and a wild-eyed, distraught, and possibly injured Granny who won’t cooperate as he tries to get her home.

If Granny has wandered away in a crime-riddled metropolis, depending on the customary missing-persons procedure, the protagonist will notify authorities to issue a silver alert and then set out on a house-to-house search through the neighborhoods closest to where Granny lives. Maybe–if it’s a gated community–an email alert will be sent to everyone and Granny’s photo will be posted on light poles. Then it’s a matter of getting in the car to check along major arterial roads or bus routes, pausing at strip shopping centers to ask store owners if they’ve seen an elderly woman trudging along, and looking in alleys while always hoping he won’t find Granny lying unconscious from a mugging behind a Dumpster. Maybe–if Granny hasn’t dropped her cell phone–the hero can ask authorities to track her SIM card. Or, the protagonist will be entirely dependent on the police to find her and will instead go to work, checking search progress periodically via his cell phone. Instead of having the protagonist facing down would-be muggers or being car-jacked in a misguided effort to generate plot from a setting the character is knowledgeable about, why not focus the plot on his conflict with authorities who may require him to wait twenty-four hours before they’ll take action?

When it comes to how setting affects character design, another factor can come through the story person’s background. Characters are usually shaped by the places where they grew up. Was a sidekick kept isolated from others, home schooled, and spent his childhood in a hippie commune in a remote rural area without cellular phone service or satellite dishes or internet?

Even if that past has no connection to your plot, such factors as these will affect the sidekick’s personality, behavior, and reactions. He may be very self-reliant, independent, skilled, and resourceful. He may feel uneasy in social situations, avoid parties or crowds of people, and be a difficult co-worker. At the other extreme, he might actively seek city life and parties, binge-watch Netflix, own every electronic gadget on the market, and be a profligate spender to compensate for all the things he thinks he missed while growing up.

Can setting, in turn, be shaped by characters? Not, perhaps, as directly as how setting affects individuals, but reader perception of a locale can be colored by character perspective, personality, and attitude. Consider Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on a train headed away from London to some remote corner of England. Watson gazes out the window at green meadows, grazing sheep, and tidy cottages with his usual optimistic, upbeat sentimentality. He comments how good it is to see such dear old homesteads. Holmes, huddled in his greatcoat and uninterested in the passing view, replies that more murders are committed in isolated farmhouses than in the most crowded, squalid sectors of the city.

(That’s one way to shut down a happy conversation.)

 

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Setting & Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in generic Metropolis, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. I’m not saying you can’t set a scene in a dark alley. Of course you can! Darkness adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. Alleys are splendid places for all sorts of nefarious activities or danger and therefore useful to fiction writers.

So don’t think I’m taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for the purposes of this example, I want you to reason through your impulse to use a gloomy, narrow location.

Why is this alley dark? Is it just because alleys are always dark and spooky? Or is it because Vinny the Villain is laying a trap and has shot out all the mercury vapor lights on the backs of the buildings?

Oh, a trap. Hmmm, then Vinny is luring someone there. Cool, but why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist? Does Vinny intend to ambush Henry Hero? Or perhaps Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation? Are henchmen and minions scattered around to put all the odds in Vinny’s favor? Will Vinny be helped or hindered by the darkness? Will the confrontation go as planned? What if it doesn’t?

Such questions are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way and help you shape plot while you visualize what sort of confrontations your characters will have with each other.

Now, let’s look at some additional questions:

Why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Are you thinking, who cares which one it is? Ah, ah, rebellious one! It matters.

Perhaps this alley is close to the location where a key player intends to be. Or perhaps this alley has a dead end, and Henry Hero can be trapped into a shootout. Or perhaps this alley cuts through a congested area and provides a shortcut.

If Vinny is indeed planning an ambush, then a shortcut isn’t useful or needed. But if instead Vinny is planning a shakedown and needs a fast escape route, then maybe this alley is the best for his purposes.

Remember that plotting is always about making choices and weighing options that are in line with each other. Plotting is not really about plunking your characters into a generic location and leaving the subsequent confrontations to haphazard chance.

And now, I have yet more questions:

What else is going on in the alley, or–more specifically–what features does it have? Time to decide whether the alley is located in Metropolis or Smalltown. Some alleys are unpaved, muddy, full of potholes and broken glass. Some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are to accommodate garbage trucks, so they are always littered and feature garbage and recycling receptacles. Those in turn tend to attract scavengers and prowlers, either the two-legged or four-legged variety. Is there access to backyards from this alley, or are there featureless walls of tall buildings? Are there doorways and loading docks? Do homeless people shelter in the alley? Are there guard dogs chained up in narrow yards that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras?

What does this alley look and smell like? What … but wait! You’re feeling overwhelmed. You want me to stop.

Are you thinking, Sheesh, Chester, why do you go overboard with so many questions and details? I just want a corpse found in a dark alley because I want to put a crime scene in my story. I don’t want to count how many plastic straws are lying in the potholes.

Well, fine. Allow me to focus on other questions, such as … How did the body get there? Who put it there? Again, why was this alley chosen as a dumping point as opposed to any other alley in the community? Was the victim killed in this alley and left, or was the victim killed elsewhere and brought here? If the latter, how was the body transported? Were there any witnesses?

If this is Smalltown and it’s a muddy alley where the trash cans are kept, is the villain seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew?

If your story is set in Metropolis, is the villain seen by a homeless person? And if that option’s worn too thin for you, is the villain seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater?

Get the idea? When you think through your setting and work out the details that go with it, you’ll reach less often for simplistic cliches or boring backdrops that contribute nothing.

 

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The Importance of Setting

In some fiction genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and westerns, setting is so important it is considered a character. In mysteries and romance stories, it serves to contribute to the discovery or misdirection of clues, to enhance plot and mood, and to elevate what could be banal or mundane into something fascinating. In horror and thrillers, it evokes spine-tingling atmosphere and can raise the stakes in cat-and-mouse suspense.

What setting should never be is generic, interchangeable, and dull. Plunking your plot and characters into a blah, ho-hum backdrop is shortchanging your readers and sabotaging the full potential of your material. Does this mean you have to set your story in Barbados instead of Backyard, USA? Not at all. A skilled, experienced writer can make just about anywhere interest someone, but it takes work, attention to detail, and knowledge to bring it to life.

Setting in creating fiction is a technique important enough to justify a series of posts devoted to it. I’ll be bringing you those posts soon.

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Searching for Diction

It’s that spooky time of year, the week leading up to Halloween when my neighbors drape cobwebs across their doorways and front yards sprout headstones, pumpkins, and life-size zombies. Even this morning, the classical music station on my car radio treated me to Saint Saens’s Danse Macabre, an anecdote about how some people at the turn of the twentieth century believed composer/musician Paganini had struck a deal with the devil in order to play so well, and very eerie scrapings on a violin intended to depict the dancing of La Strega.

So, given the slanting golden days of late October with the wind whipping falling leaves and shoppers rushing to load up on candy in preparation for All Hallows’ Eve, I’m joining in the spirit of things by writing a post devoted to diction and the imagery it can create.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines diction as “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.

And a much simpler way of defining it is just “word choice.”

Can that make much difference in writing? You bet! Words are our sculptor’s tool, our chisel, our brush, our paint. We manipulate reader imaginations through the various words we use as descriptors. We can make a setting dull and uninteresting or vivid and appealing. We can evoke reader sympathy for characters or influence readers to dislike them intensely. By utilizing vocabulary with precise intent, we can add another layer of entertainment value to the stories we create.

Let’s look at some examples:

The large, red dog trotted along the sidewalk. He seemed to know where he was going. He ignored all the pedestrians he passed. At Sixth and Elm, he crossed the street, evading the oncoming cars. A cop noticed him, but by then he’d vanished into an alleyway.

Are you enthralled?

No?

I’m not surprised. The diction of this example is flat, dull, ordinary, and without imagery. It lacks the specialized (or coded) language that would fit it into a particular genre, and it is not focused into any sort of dominant, lasting impression.

Let’s shift and tweak this a bit so it fits instead into the romance category:

The magnificent Irish Red Setter trotted along the sidewalk as though leading a parade of pedestrians. With his coat gleaming like a copper penny in the sunshine, he disdained all the passersby and ignored every attempt to catch his attention or touch him. So regally did he move that the crowd parted ahead of him, and even at the normally busy intersection of Sixth and Elm the cars halted to let him pass. By the time a cop saw him, the setter was disappearing into an alleyway with a jaunty wave of his plumed tail.

More adjectives? Yes. More adverbs? Yes. Longer? Definitely. The dog is moving down the sidewalk, but now we have a specific breed, plus visual cues from similes, and a focus on the animal’s beauty and regal bearing.

What about putting our pooch into a mystery?

No doubt about it, the mutt was a stray. I watched him scurry down Broad Avenue, searching from doorway to doorway for the little bowls of kibble that softies among the shopkeepers left there. Good way to attract rats and roaches, if you ask me. But the dog knew the drill and was ready to mooch for what he could find. A couple of guys in suits called to him. One even tried to grab the dog’s collar. It was just a piece of dirty rope tied around his neck, the snapped end dangling where he’d made his break for freedom. But he dodged the attempt to catch him with an outraged yelp and shot across the intersection of Sixth and Elm. Cars honked and squealed brakes to avoid hitting the mangy fleabag.  On the corner a cop put in a call, probably to the dog catcher. Yeah, like the pound could arrive in time to catch anything. Muttsie meanwhile was already ducking out of sight in the nearest dark alley.

Yes, I used “shot” deliberately as a verb and “snapped” as an adjective. I gave the street a name because mysteries focus on specific details. I used a first-person narrator and viewpoint in the detective tradition. Other terms selected as appropriate for this genre include “stray,” “mooch,” “rats,” “roaches,” “drill,” “break for freedom,” “dirty rope,” etc.

And urban fantasy?

In the thickening twilight, nightfall spread across the broken pavement. Dead weeds had pushed up through the cracks in the cement and died there, their desiccated corpses casting crooked little shadows in the streetlights’ amber glow. A lean hound, as black as the cloak of death, moved between shadow and light, seen and unseen, its pads silent upon a sidewalk littered with glints of broken glass and the occasional crumpled soda can or food wrapper. Only a few people remained out. They hurried, clutching their coat collars, and dodged to let the hound pass unhindered. No one reached out to the animal. No one called to it. For it wore the heavy black chain of its master, and to meet its glowing red eyes was to look through the gates of Hell.

Here, I’ve chosen harsh descriptors, making the weeds into dried-up corpses, crumbling the sidewalk, and littering it with trash and broken glass. I’ve also set my stage with darkness and shadows, long the playground of danger. And, yes, this time I’ve given people the collars and the dog a chain–all on purpose.

As you can see in each of these examples, I’ve altered the dominant impression to create imagery and to establish a certain mood in my readers’ minds. I’ve chosen to emphasize very different details, or created them to fit the atmosphere I want. Essentially the same action is occurring–although in the fantasy I dispensed with traffic and alleys. But each sample points to a very different plot and story world.

Tone, mood, atmosphere, weather, and setting. Beyond the writer tools of plot and characters, adopt the strategy of making diction also work for you. Edgar Allen Poe employed it in the nineteenth century, and yet this device is by no means out-dated. You can use it to frighten or enchant readers, charm them, alarm them, or even make them laugh out loud.

 

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Idea Files

Writers and their ideas. Whether they’re teeming in our heads, overflowing our imaginations, or being chiseled from what seems like bedrock, the question isn’t so much where do they come from as it is how do we preserve them until we’re ready for them?

In my amateur days I used to suffer sudden sweats of panic about losing the idea that would make me famous. Then, as I established my career, I figured that good ideas were like stray dogs you don’t want to adopt:  no matter how hard you ignore them, they stick around.

Even so, good ideas shouldn’t be wasted. They shouldn’t be lost. So how do we manage them? In other words, are you tidy, meticulous, and organized with all your ideas filed in the Cloud or some other nebulous, high-tech place? Or do you jot your ideas on your phone or tablet? Or do you dump them all into a Word document file? Or do you scribble them on fast-food napkins, the backs of envelopes, sticky notes, and any other scrap of paper that’s handy?

Several years ago, I worked in the rare books department of a university library. At the time, this library was not yet computerized, so a card catalog was still in use — you know, that tall wooden cabinet with every book in the collection filed alphabetically on a separate card in the catalog’s narrow drawers. One of the advantages of my lowly job was the availability of blank cards. If I needed to jot down a line of dialogue for a character, I had a stack of cards at hand. I would go home with all sorts of cryptic notes, bits of description, etc. scribbled on several cards. This haphazard approach worked fine for manuscripts in progress then, and still does.

But the focus of this post is on the ideas that come when you can’t drop everything and work on them immediately. The ideas that are going to be filed away for use later. How do you record them? What, exactly, do you record? What goes into those files? And how useful are they later when you get around to them?

I admit that I’m more of a piler than a filer. When I’m working on a manuscript, I don’t want to throw anything away, and I don’t want the piles of paper, notes, references, etc. on my desk disturbed until the manuscript is finished, edited, submitted, copy-edited, and safely in production. Only then do I clear the desk in preparation for the next project. Needless to say, this leads to some pretty horrendous stacks of all sorts of things. I’ll never forget the day that I was cleaning out my office, and came across one of those bits of paper that was so obviously a notation of an idea.

I knew it was important because a) I’d written it down and b) I’d kept it on my desk close at hand. At least, I could only presume that it had once been important. Because it only contained a single cryptic word that made no sense whatsoever. I think it might have been a character name, but who was he? I was writing three science fiction books a year at the time, and all sorts of names and terms were being invented daily.

So there I stood, holding a potentially vital clue in my hand … and I couldn’t use it.

I never did recall what it meant, what it was for, why I’d written it, or what I intended to do with it. Nothing sparked to life. Whatever the idea was, it was clearly without sufficient vitality to stick around. However, it taught me that when I took the trouble to record an idea, then I needed to write down more than a single mysterious word or phrase.

Here, then, are my suggestions for idea notations:

1) Determine whether you have a character, setting, or plot idea.

2) If a character, then write at least a paragraph of description or background. If a name comes to you or a handful of possible names, record those. Do you have any inkling of this character’s personality, or any quirks? Can you envision as yet how this character might dress or express herself? What does she want from life? What is troubling her? What about her intrigues you or appeals to you? How might you make her more vivid?

3) If you’ve got a setting in mind, whether it’s a world or a room, describe it as vividly and as specifically as you can. List all the details that occur to you. Don’t worry about gaps and missing information. Don’t even bother with putting the details into sentences. Just list what comes to mind. Afterwards, try to form a dominant impression of this setting. Can you sum up what you have so far into a short phrase? For example, you might use “blinding light” as a dominant impression for a desert setting featuring white, purely reflective sand beneath an intense sun.

4) If it’s a plot that’s unfurling in your mind, then go ahead and try to really capture it. At least try to sketch out the bare bones of the situation, a catalytic event of change, a potential protagonist, a possible antagonist, their individual goals, and the disaster they’re possibly headed toward.

In other words, instead of filing the notation “sinking ship” in your plot file, write up a plot sketch in which you determine who’s aboard her, what’s causing her to go down, are there sufficient lifeboats, are the officers able to control the panic, who among the crew and passengers has the most to lose, which individual with a lot at stake stands out or interests you most, and what does this individual want to accomplish. The more you can record, the more likely your plot will continue to bubble in the back of your mind, alive and possibly growing.

You will have gaps, of course. These are, after all, ideas rather than fully developed premises. You needn’t push yourself for answers or expect to have them all at once. Just make sure you ask the questions. And then, secure those ideas so they don’t become lost!

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