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Plotting III: Romance Structure

A working definition of plot can be a protagonist attempting to achieve a specific objective or overcome a problem despite direct opposition by an antagonist through escalating conflict and obstacles to a crisis point, whereby the protagonist either succeeds or fails.

Granted, this is cumbersome and convoluted–as many working definitions are–but it basically means the protagonist wants something and tries to get it despite an antagonist standing in the way. They clash and maneuver until a big showdown occurs that settles the matter.

While most commercial-fiction genres follow this linear, cause-and-effect, archetypal plot structure, two genres stand out as exceptions because they utilize different–somewhat unconventional–plot dynamics.

They are the romance story and the mystery. Both of them manage to confuse and entangle new writers frequently enough to warrant further discussion.

For this post, let’s examine the romance structure. On the surface, it seems straightforward and simple enough. The couple must meet. The couple must fall in love. The couple must commit. How hard can it be to write about two people falling in love with each other?

Hmmm.

You’ve chosen your setting–perhaps a tropical beach with palm trees swaying in the breeze and turquoise waves curling onto pristine sand.

You can imagine your heroine’s curly auburn hair and tawny eyes. You’re planning to write a heterosexual story so the hero is handsome, dark-haired, and athletic. You envision them kissing passionately on the sand as the tide comes in–something like that famous beach embrace between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the WWII film, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

Okay, and now what? What you have so far is fine, but it’s not a story. After all, besides going on dates and kissing, what else should happen? A genre romance–in contrast to erotica–is not just one torrid bedroom scene after another. And although you intend to bring your couple together happily ever after, you can’t seem to get there while you’re  contriving constant squabbles. In effect, you’re grounded on a sandbar.

So you attend some writing workshops, where the speaker advises you to create a protagonist and antagonist with directly opposing goals and talks about linear plot structure much as I did in the opening paragraph of this post. Trouble is, that advice of opposition, clashing goals, and conflict makes little sense for anyone trying to write a story intended to bring a couple together.

If the heroine is the protagonist, then who’s the antagonist? The guy? Does this mean he has to be an arrogant, foul-mouthed, ruthless, and awful villain? And if he’s like that, how stupidly besotted will a heroine be to fall for him?

Stop!

The heroine isn’t going to be stupid. The hero isn’t going to be a villain.

Granted, some romance novels published in the 1970s and ’80s featured assorted rough and rotten heroes that today make us roll our eyes while muttering caustic remarks about neanderthals, but a successfully plotted–and plausible–romance can follow the classic, archetypal plotting principles just fine.

Allow me to explain.

If your heroine’s desire/objective is to meet and attract THE ONE into a wonderful, committed, forever type of relationship, she has a specific story goal. Furthermore, her goal is clear, obtainable, understandable, and fits the standard tropes of the romance genre.

The plotting principles of genre fiction, however, dictate that stories must have conflict and clashing goals. Does that mean a couple must bicker at every opportunity?

Not at all. It means they should disagree on specific goal-directed issues.

Let’s repeat the heroine’s goal: to meet and attract THE ONE. She meets him on the opening page and recognizes him instantly as THE ONE. That means, therefore, that she wants to attract him. She wants to be with him.

Now, to achieve plotted conflict that will advance the story, the hero–in this scenario–must NOT want to be THE ONE. Sure, he’ll like her. He’ll think she’s cute or beautiful. He might or might not seek a date with her. But despite his attraction to her, he will be determined to avoid becoming her ONE.

His reasons can be a variety of motivations that have little or nothing to do with her personally. Perhaps he’s committed to a bachelor existence and doesn’t want to change or settle down.

I recently read a novel by Cindi Madsen called JUST ONE OF THE GROOMSMEN, where the hero was focused on his recent job-loss and how he didn’t have a career, didn’t have enough money saved, and didn’t feel confident of supporting himself let alone a wife.

(In my youth, I dated a handsome guy who was just starting law school and didn’t want a serious relationship until he was finished with his training. I wanted to be serious, and he didn’t. Wisely or not, I moved on.)

Conversely, the heroine may be the individual that’s determined never again to be in a relationship. Perhaps she’s been burned before, and hero is exactly the type of guy she doesn’t want.

If this THE ONE / NOT THE ONE dynamic is set up clearly in your mind during the planning and outline stage, you will have the conflict you need to keep your plot going because although clearly ideal for each other, the hero and heroine will not be in sync until the story ends.

In the screwball comedy classic, BRINGING UP BABY, heroine Katharine Hepburn falls for an already-engaged Cary Grant and chases him mercilessly in a series of zany antics designed merely to keep her in his sight.

Occasionally, for the sake of variety, a writer will create a lovers triangle where a rival for either the heroine or the hero gets in the way and tries to prevent the course of true love.  In THE RAZOR’S EDGE, the hero’s former flame–who ditched him years before to marry a rich man–destroys his new relationship rather than see him happy.

A third plot variant is the forbidden romance with a parent or authority figure refusing to allow the couple to form a committed, lasting relationship. Tolstoy’s tragic story, ANNA KARENINA, centers upon an unhappily married woman’s love affair with a dashing young soldier while her husband and Russian society turn against her. War itself can also serve to part lovers as in the classic films CASABLANCA and  WATERLOO BRIDGE.

In the romantic comedy, THE MORE THE MERRIER, starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, all three of these plot structures are employed:  she is seeking a female roommate to share her apartment and doesn’t want Joel McCrea for a tenant (she does not consider him THE ONE); although she’s very attracted physically to McCrea, she’s engaged to another man (lovers triangle); WWII is the authority about to deploy McCrea on a dangerous overseas mission, thus parting them (forbidden romance).

The WHY Factor

The romance plot structure requires a clear understanding of WHY from both opposing characters. In other words, WHY is he THE ONE for her? WHY is she so certain of it?

Or, if she dislikes him at first, WHY is she so determined to avoid and evade him as he pursues her?

The why factor is critical character motivation. Work through the why, and your couple will fight and disagree from valid, plausible reasons instead of bickering foolishly for bickering’s sake.

Also, remember that strong motivation will keep your protagonist from quitting, even when winning true love seems hopeless.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Jane Austen’s book has been delighting readers for over 200 years, which is a darned good track record for longevity. Her deft handling of the romance plot structure as well as where and how she turns it in unpredictable ways continues to charm readers.

Let’s look at it briefly as an illustration of my points. First of all, the why factor is critical in making this plot plausible. Darcy is eligible, handsome, and very rich. Austen must create valid, plausible reasons why Elizabeth does not instantly fall for him. And therefore, although he is handsome and rich he’s also very shy with strangers and tends to be brusque until he feels more comfortable. That is why he sneers at the people attending the dance and insults Elizabeth when they first meet. They each start off with a poor first impression of the other.

REASONS WHY ELIZABETH AND DARCY STAY APART

*Miscommunication

*Misunderstanding

*Clashing personalities

*Stubbornness, misplaced pride, and prejudice

*Meddling from others

*Social inequality

Initially, both Elizabeth and Darcy dislike each other and are firmly convinced that neither is THE ONE.

Darcy is smitten first, but he fights against accepting Elizabeth as THE ONE because her family is unsuitable.

Elizabeth fights against accepting him as THE ONE because her feelings are hurt, then her sister is hurt, then she is deceived by Mr. Wickham, then she realizes what a social hindrance her family is.

Just as she is starting to accept Darcy as THE ONE, his clumsy first proposal insults her all over again. By the time she truly recognizes how much she’s misjudged him (as well as how incredibly rich he is) and realizes he is really THE ONE, he has backed away.

Back and forth they go, pursuing and evading then switching positions, but always in a dance of conflict until the final misunderstanding is resolved.

 

 

 

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Plotting II: Genre Choice

There are many ways to brainstorm, find inspiration, and be struck by ideas. This series of posts won’t be dealing with them. Instead, I want to supply suggestions for how to move your premise from a nebulous idea to a viable plot.

In doing that, let’s first consider genre. Commercial fiction relies heavily on separate, identifiable genres, and genres in turn are built on strong plots. As part of the weave of this shared dependence, plot itself is heavily influenced by its genre.

Therefore, I always recommend that writers start the plotting process by selecting a genre. How else can you know what you’ll need or how your story will go?

If you’re planning a road trip, don’t you program your GPS with the destination so you can choose your best route? Why, then, would you try to plot a novel without knowing what type of book it will be?

Imagine yourself walking into a Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble store to buy a book for your vacation. What type of book do you want to read? Mystery? Romance? Thriller? You head for the appropriate section of the store to browse. And while you might prefer to wander through all the sections in hopes of discovering a new book that’s exciting or an author you’ve never read before, let’s say that you’re enroute to the airport and haven’t time to explore all the shelves. You need something fast. You want a sure thing, a book you’ll enjoy. You haven’t the time or inclination to gamble on the unknown.

The same principle works for plotting. You want to be efficient, productive, and professional in developing a story outline that will carry you from start to finish of your manuscript.

Therefore, choose a genre to write. If you’re unsure of what category your story idea fits into, ask yourself where in a brick-and-mortar bookstore it would be shelved. If you cannot answer that question, it’s time for you to stop immediately and do some honest thinking along the following lines:

*What type of fiction do you enjoy reading most?

*Is your story idea that type?

*If not, why not?

*Do you have elements from several types of stories swimming in your imagination?

*Do you want to impress others by writing a piece of Great American Literature?

*Have you assembled a heap of scene fragments, settings, concepts, and character sketches from a wide variety of influences?

*Are you feeling confused and overwhelmed?

So let’s dig a bit deeper into these questions.

If you don’t plan to write what you love to read, why not? Isn’t the type of fiction you love best the type of fiction you know best?

Do you think you’re not skilled enough to put together a mystery, despite having read them avidly since childhood and being able to dissect how clues are laid and misdirected in an Agatha Christie story?

Do you feel that even though you’re a romantic and adore curling up with a passionate love story–your cat on your lap and a cup of tea at your elbow–no one will take you seriously if you confess you’re writing a romance?

Do you think you can’t write science fiction because you flunked physics in high school?

Nonsense! Don’t let self-doubts hold you back from writing a story you’ll enjoy. It’s so easy to denigrate or short-change what comes easiest to us, when in fact that means we have a talent for it.

Furthermore, stop trying to impress others because doing so leads to phony writing or cliched imitations. Write what you love; love what you write. (Hmmm … should that be a tee-shirt logo?)

Now, if you’re overwhelmed, dazed, and confused because you have a variety of influences bombarding your mind, make a foundation decision and choose one genre.

From that selection, start selecting the scene fragments and character sketches that fit your chosen genre. Alter or set aside the rest. A wildly disparate mixture of motifs, influences, and concepts is seldom indicative of genius; instead, it signals a lack of focus. If this is a problem for you, don’t be upset. Whatever you eliminate is not wasted inspiration. It can be saved for other projects to come.

Genre choice will give you an anchor. You aren’t drifting rudderless now. Just as you chose a college major that immediately set you on a path of specific courses to take as well as courses you couldn’t, picking a genre clears away the infinity of limitless options and forces you to focus. This happens because genre choice affects the following:

*The length your story will be;

*The pacing your story will have–which in turn will affect how long and intense your scenes are, whether you can write scene fragments with fast scene cuts or instead need long passages of internalization and transition, and if you’ll put together a plot-driven or character-driven story;

*The types of characters you’ll need, as well as how many;

*The story’s locale;

*The amount of research you’ll do;

*The tropes required (modern versions that aren’t out of date);

*The coding of your language.

These seven areas by no means encompass all the decisions you’ll be making while in story development, but they’re a good place to start. As you focus on them, you’ll probably find more and even better ideas coming to you.

 

 

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Plotting Woes: Part I

For years, I’ve thought of story as a movie playing in my head. My characters want something and strive for it despite opposition and villainy. Their dialogue unspools in my head. I see them moving and gesturing. And I am a scribe, a secretary recording what I see and hear in my imagination just as quickly as I can type.

It took me a long time to realize that not everyone writes this way. Maybe the first inkling of this struck me back in the 1980s, when I was chatting with a guy working on his English Ph.D. He was writing a very ambitious novel set in Russia. His dissertation committee had agreed–hesitantly–to allow him to write a creative dissertation and use this novel manuscript. The work was going slowly. He was asking me questions, since at the time I’d had several books published, and for some reason I inquired if he saw his characters and plot as a movie.

“No,” he replied. “I see words on the paper.”

Recently I was working with a student that doesn’t follow cause-and-effect structure. His story events don’t occur to him in a linear progression. Instead, he thinks of a section of his story, then jumps to a different section, then jumps to yet a different portion. As a result, his rough drafts are chaotic and messy, very disorganized. Eventually he moves scenes and characters conversations around, but it seems to take a long time and the process strikes me as incredibly inefficient.

When I was putting together my book, FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING, I had to sit down and really think about people such as the two I’ve referred to here. Obviously writers have as many processes and strategies for putting stories together as they have ideas, but why? Why is the very approach to planning a story so easy for a few and so difficult for others?

Why is there so much confusion about what is and isn’t a viable plot, and why do some newbies resist help so stubbornly, clinging instead to what doesn’t work like a drowning man grasping a life preserver?

For a long time, I blithely dismissed it as insufficient reading. After all, when I’m suffering through the ineptitude and clumsiness of student writing, I can tell immediately whether the student reads currently or stopped long ago. One individual phrased his sentences so poorly, yet assured me he was reading all the time, that I finally realized he wasn’t reading. Instead, he was listening to books on audio and simply didn’t grasp how awkwardly he was formulating sentences. As soon as I persuaded him to stop multi-tasking and actually read a book, his syntax and diction improved.

Yet I know people who struggle with construction and plotting who read all the time. So I began to ask, “What are you reading? Who are you reading?”

The answer has been frequently those aimless, critically lauded novels that tend to meander without going anywhere. The kind of book some people use to impress others by having it spill from their backpacks or lie on the coffee table. Small wonder my student has been having trouble grasping plotting concepts!

Several months ago, a friend introduced me to the concept of stories delivered via texting. Naturally I was skeptical, so a YouTube.com video was found to show me two teenagers reacting to a dumb little drivel about a lost dog. The teens were enthralled.

I was appalled.

I saw at once that it wasn’t the story they were inputting because there wasn’t a story, not a real one. Instead, they were captivated by the novelty of delivery.

I hate to always bemoan the sad state of modern literature, but is our society becoming so illiterate, so removed from solid, intriguing, cause-and-effect plotting that we don’t even recognize it and can’t distinguish it from nonsense?

Good writing … good story … compelling plot has no need for gimmicks.

In this series, I’ll be sharing what plot is, how it works, and why we still need it.

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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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