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Setting & Research

Research is necessary for any successful setting although it can also be a quagmire from which the unwary writer may never emerge. While it’s tempting to use only invented settings or to confine your stories to a few locations that you feel you know well, this type of restriction may not be what’s best for your story. Furthermore, research–despite its potential hazards–shouldn’t be avoided.

In this post, I want to divide setting research into two main areas: actual locations and imaginary locations. Let’s deal with them separately.

Actual locations can be split further into actual contemporary settings and actual historical settings. You may think a contemporary setting is easy and needs no fact checks, but never assume your knowledge is correct or sufficiently thorough. Check and recheck your details. Get them right, and don’t hesitate to visit a street, neighborhood, or district just to look it over with a fresh perspective. Think about how your protagonist or viewpoint character might perceive the area. What would this character notice?

Above all, avoid doing your research by watching television. What looks good enough to “work” for television isn’t necessarily accurate. Prop masters on motion-picture sets have been known to attach the blade from one type of sword to the hilt of a different kind of sword just because it “looks better” onscreen.

Don’t fear to ask questions. People love it when you show interest in where they live or what they do. They’re flattered and usually eager to help. Before the existence of the Internet, a writer friend of mine once set a novel on a remote chain of largely unpopulated islands. She needed to describe the sound of the surf as the tide came in, and she finally called a weather research station on the island, explained what she was doing and what she needed, and then gained the assistance of the staff as they opened windows and held the phone receiver outside so she could “listen.”

Historical settings are dangerous in that researching them can lead you down a rabbit hole to infinity. Sometimes writers avoid doing any actual writing because they feel they should research every detail first. Before you know it, you’ve missed a deadline or you’re revising your plot outline in some weird way to fit a setting quirk that you think needs including. I love history. I love researching. I love details. I love discoveries. I’ve written many novels with historical or quasi-historical settings. Once I skewed my plot to include a piece of research that I found too cool to ignore. Let’s just say that after an uncomfortable conversation with my literary agent where he took me to task for those unnecessary 17,000 words and I subsequently missed a week’s vacation while I deleted them, I have not repeated that mistake.

Early in my career, I was given an invaluable piece of advice. It was to plot first and write the rough draft, and then do the research. That’s because you will know exactly what you should check. Because I have written so many historicals, I have amended that approach to doing minimal upfront research to make sure my plot outline is plausible and feasible. Then I write the rough draft and then I double-check my facts. This way, I’m not sucked into any black holes of no return. I keep the information under control. I don’t waste time exploring the bucolic delights of Welsh sheep country when all I need are two Welsh character names.

Imaginary locations are not an automatic free pass from doing any fact checking at all. Even if you’re creating a wholly invented world in a futuristic fantasy, you must still be plausible. That means as you construct your story world with its terrain, climate, cultures, societies, economies, government, level of civilization, and everyday life you must make sure all the details fit feasibly together.

If you’re creating an imaginary small town located northwest of an actual metropolis, you still need to know the distance they are from each other, whether the metropolis will be utilized or referred to, plus the climate, the smells, sounds, cultures, and populace of your made-up community. I have lived in small communities adjacent to big cities. I know what it’s like to need a part for repairs or an item from a store and be told it’s not in stock and I’ll have to get it from Big Town. I know what it’s like to live a hundred miles or more from the nearest city and how neighbors shun any suggestion of visiting the city because “it’s a whole different world.” Or, “we don’t understand people that live way up there at that end of the state.” I also find that the inhabitants of some major cities can occasionally be as insular and provincial as the folks in small towns.

Remember that your invented community isn’t isolated and should relate to what part of what state it’s located in.

If you choose instead to situate your story in an actual place but you want to invent only a street or neighborhood, then you’re running the risk of confusing readers and being misunderstood. People tend to plunge into books, eager to get into a story, without bothering to notice that it’s set, for example, in 1920s Bombay, India, or 1960s Detroit. They miss all the cues. They don’t read the back cover blurb, and they hit some statement or behavior in the story that throws them, jolts them, or confuses them. They tend to conclude that you, dear writer, haven’t done your research and don’t know this setting at all.



Unnecessary and avoidable?


Even if you write a paragraph of explanation inserted on the first page that tells readers this is an invented district, chances are some won’t see it.

My advice is either to use entirely accurate information in an actual locale or move to an entirely invented place near an actual locale.

Whatever you do, don’t settle for generic vagueness in which the backdrop is as lively as motel-room decor and could take place anywhere, anytime, and for any reason.

And finally, writers are constantly told to write about what they know. That advice–while absolutely sound–doesn’t mean you can’t use a location you’ve never visited or or that you can’t invent a backdrop entirely. You know a place through learning about it, observing it, talking to others who’ve been to it, running a Google search for images, and going there. If you can’t be there physically, at least travel there in your imagination.

By imagination, I don’t mean you invent or ignore details about an actual setting. Instead, you should mull over your research, think through all the details you’ve gathered, ask questions, and dig deeper. Remember that as you write a manuscript you’ll be checking your setting during prep, during the writing, and during revision. Also, be aware that no matter how much work you do, how many questions of the locals you ask, and how hard you try, it’s possible you can still get some niggling detail wrong. In that case, you apologize, shrug it off, avoid reading the irate reader review on Amazon, and do better next time.

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Bland versus Vivid Settings

Bland settings occur when writers do the following:

-write in generalities

-avoid specific details

-supply only vague information

-forget to use a viewpoint character’s physical senses.

Vivid settings are achieved when writers do this:

-utilize specifics

-feature dominant impressions in passages of description

-employ physical senses where and when appropriate.

Now, let’s consider some examples.

Bland: Jane sipped her coffee while she pondered how to ask her sister a question. She wished her sis made a better brew. She wished she’d hadn’t accepted her sister’s invitation to stay here. They weren’t getting anywhere in deciding what to do about their father.

Do you see the problems with this paragraph? While it shows Jane doing an activity and worrying about her situation, the general vagueness creates a dull, uninteresting effect. There’s nothing here to excite a reader, nothing to intrigue or compel a reader to continue.

Let’s revise Jane and bring her to life.

Vivid: Jane’s first sip of the coffee scalded her mouth. Too hot and far too bitter. She spit it back into her cup and banged the mug too hard on the worn kitchen table without worrying about denting the top. Why did Erika buy such cheap blends? Why did she over brew the coffee until it was so scorched that drinking it became an ordeal? Since Jane’s arrival for this ghastly visit at her sister’s shabby apartment, Jane had offered twice now to make the coffee, even to buy hand-ground Hawaiian Kona beans, but Erika was such a skinflint and control freak. She refused to let Jane buy organic, quality groceries despite Jane’s offer of asking only for a fifty percent reimbursement. As for Dad–the whole point of this sisterly reunion–Erika insisted they needed to put him in senior care, but so far Jane couldn’t persuade her to wheedle him into signing a power of attorney. With that vital document, they could seize control of his finances and have a chance of saving some of their inheritance.

Okay. The original four insipid sentences have expanded into a much longer paragraph. I’m not sure I care for Jane. She’s rude, critical, aggressive, bossy, scornful, and impatient. If I were reading this, my sympathies might slant toward Erika, especially as Jane’s introspection continues to find fault with her. As a reader, I might have no interest in this scenario of adult siblings dealing with an aging, possibly incompetent parent. On the other hand, I now have a dominant impression of Jane. I now grasp the bare bones of the situation. I’m not certain whether Erika’s lack of cooperation over the power of attorney indicates a basic misunderstanding or an attempt to protect dear old dad from the more aggressive Jane; however, I see the inherent conflict in this situation.

Let’s look at another example.

Bland: Jimmy, late for class, hurried down the school hallway.

We’ve all been in this situation at some time or the other, yet this sentence offers nothing else. Have classes already started? Is the hallway ominously empty? Jimmy’s in a hurry, but I don’t know his state of mind. Maybe he’s anxious. Maybe being late wasn’t his fault. Or maybe he’s habitually never on time. What class is he late for? How old is he? What, in this meager sentence, can make a reader care?

Vivid: Late again! Jimmy slammed shut his locker and hurried for algebra class upstairs in the old annex building. This time if the hall proctor caught him before the second class bell rang, it meant detention in the basement study hall and death at home. Jimmy juked around the knots of girls giggling together, collided with a scrawny seventh-grader with thick glasses and a cowlick, and trampled the gleaming new sneaker of Arnie Bixmaster, football bruiser and overlord of the senior class. “Sorry,” Jimmy squeaked and tried to push past this wall of brawn, but Arnie’s paw thudded into Jimmy’s chest, nearly caving it in.

In this revamped example, we still don’t know why Jimmy is late or why he’s not allowing himself ample time to make it to algebra class. However, the setting is now populated. Anyone reading this will understand the stakes. We’ve all scurried to class through crowded high school hallways. Although this example doesn’t mention squeaking sneakers on tile floors or that smell old school buildings all seem to have, enough memories from the details mentioned will conjure up sufficient sense of place. Even more importantly, will Arnie allow him to go by or beat him to a pulp?

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Setting and Atmosphere

For this one, let’s take a page–pun intended, ha ha–from Edgar Allen Poe.

In his fiction, he demonstrated the effectiveness of imagery, atmosphere, and even the weather on a story’s impact. Poe focused on themes of despair, decay, rot, death, and madness. He did not confuse his readers, therefore, by tossing in a charming little cottage backdrop with bunnies cavorting amidst its flowers. Instead, he set his tales in crumbling palaces, isolated old houses, and prisons. These are the intrinsic settings for gloom and disaster. His characters prowl secret passages by night–not the happy sunshine of day. They lurk in underground crypts and break their hearts among coffins and tombs. No one in a Poe story is going to trill song. The ravens may gather like ominous omens silhouetted against a darkening sky, but bluebirds of happiness will not twitter. The lashing wind of a winter’s gale can batter a house. Within, there will be insufficient candlelight and no cheer burning merrily on the hearth.

Consider the tropes of your chosen genre. Think about the plot you’ve outlined. Plan the tone and mood of your story with as much attention as you’ve organized your plot events. Let setting contribute to that mood through active participation in those tropes, whatever they may be.

For example, let’s examine the mood and location of a romantic story. Both should enhance the tone you’re trying to evoke.

In the 1952 John Ford film, The Quiet Man, Sean sees Mary Kate for the very first time as she’s leading a flock of sheep across a verdant Irish pasture with the sun shining on her red hair. He’s instantly attracted by her beauty and wants to get acquainted. If I recall correctly, in the 1933 short story by Maurice Walsh that the film’s based on, 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. One version works best for a movie while the other version takes advantage of viewpoint in prose. Both approaches are incredibly romantic. They convey the same plot event, and they are both using setting to enhance this man’s first attraction for the woman he’ll court and eventually marry.

On the other hand, if your story is a gritty thriller, using the lush natural beauty of Ireland as a backdrop and having your protagonist stop in the middle of dangerous action to notice a woman’s fiery hair will only make him appear stupid or super lousy at his job. Of course, he can notice her hair if he has her under surveillance and its bright color makes it easier for him to follow her. But in that situation, he’s going to focus on the hue rather than how a tendril curls on the back of her neck.

If you’re writing comedy, you can use a dungeon as contrast, but it will be a place your characters want to avoid or escape as soon as physically possible. The setting then becomes a locale for mishaps, pratfalls, exaggerated terror of axes and spears, or playing cat-and-mouse chases up and down dark staircases. The photo below comes from the 1948 comedy-horror film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. As you can see, the two comics are trapped on a rickety staircase between Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. The set’s image shows rot and decay, but the lighting is bright, and the staging is not scary.

Comedy, however, will not in a serious way depict a dark torture pit beneath a rotting castle with the viewpoint character suffering dramatic, grim, joint-breaking, moment-by-moment sessions on the medieval rack. Comedy will instead gloss over the nightmare suffering and focus on other story elements, much as the Pit of Despair is handled in the 1987 film, The Princess Bride.

Contrast the comedic use of underground chambers with a serious one as depicted in the 1955 thriller, Night of the Hunter, where two children are hiding in the cellar from the psychotic that’s murdered their mother. Here, the darkness and the earthy baskets of stored potatoes serve as inadequate concealment for these frightened children.

It’s always a matter of appropriately choosing the details on which to focus. How well you employ them to conjure up atmosphere that will support your plot rather than detract from it will determine how useful your setting can be.

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Setting and Character

The locale of a story should affect character design in how that character interacts with the setting or how this individual has been shaped by the place.

Setting isn’t separate from your other story elements. It’s not just a piece of scenery relegated to the background. Instead, it should be an inherent part of the situation and plot problem. After all, if your characters seem oblivious to their location, why did you choose it? Why not let it instead work for you and the needs of your story?

By all of this, I don’t mean you have to inject a raging typhoon into your plot scenario, but if–for example–you strand your characters in a life raft bobbing on the Pacific Ocean, what individual impact does that setting have on each of them?

Is your protagonist comfortable with the backdrop you’ve chosen? Is this person an intrinsic part of the locale? Does the hero know the lay of the land or the city streets? Is he or she prepared to handle things? Can this individual stay calm and competent in dealing with trouble? Will it be possible to maneuver without becoming lost? If so, then you as the writer will be plotting externally. Complications and story problems will be generated by other characters with whom the hero is in conflict.

On the other hand, if your protagonist is a fish out of water, then that person’s unfamiliarity with the setting can inject additional danger, misunderstandings, or even comedy into your story beyond what oppositional characters will bring. It enables you to present setting details to readers as your hero discovers them. This process of ongoing discovery and observation can allow you to avoid awkward information dumps that might otherwise stall story progress.

As an example, let’s consider the vintage film, Crocodile Dundee. It begins in the Australian outback, where civilization is basic and the setting is full of natural dangers. Dundee is an intrinsic part of the setting. He’s comfortable with poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. He knows how to survive in the brush. The girl, however, is a fish out of water. She’s in physical danger constantly because she doesn’t know the pitfalls to watch for and avoid. Halfway through the film, however, the setting shifts to New York City. Now the girl is comfortable with her urban setting, but Dundee becomes the fish out of water. His bewilderment and subsequent solutions inject comedy into the story. I might add that he adapts very quickly to his new environment–thus characterizing himself further.

Let’s also think about how a character is shaped by the place where she grew up. Let’s say she was kept isolated from others, home schooled, and lived on a remote sheep ranch in New Zealand. Those factors will affect in turn her personality, behavior, and reactions. She may be very self-reliant, independent, and resourceful. She may feel uneasy in social situations, avoid parties or crowds of people, and be a difficult co-worker. Conversely, she may move to the other extreme by seeking city life and parties. She may be a profligate spender to compensate for all the things she thinks she missed while growing up.

Children of military parents learn they’ll be uprooted every year or two. They aren’t going to form deep, close-knit friendships at school, but they may become gregarious and socialized enough to make friends anywhere. They can become highly adaptable people, or they may hate the constant moving and never feel like they belong.

If a character currently lives in a harsh desert climate, then does he ignore his environment by planting a lush lawn similar to what he knew in a different part of the world and irrigating it? Does he run an air conditioner lavishly? Or does he work with his setting by staying indoors during the hottest part of the day, never driving anywhere without a thermos of water, closing the house during the day and opening all the windows at night when the air is cooler, and foregoing a lawn? Such details alone don’t make a story, but if–for example–the plot deals with a runaway senior citizen suffering from dementia who has wandered into the brush away from all roads, then a desert-savvy protagonist will know to start the search at dawn, to find tracks in the sand and follow them, to carry plenty of water and a weapon in case he encounters rabid wildlife, and that he must find Granny before the intense noonday heat gives her sunstroke or she becomes dangerously dehydrated. The search alone is pitting man against the adversity of nature. Adversity alone doesn’t make a compelling novel. But if you add the brother that typically ignores desert conditions as stated above but who insists on joining the search, now your story can run on the conflict between brothers as one grimly notes how time is running out while the other complains constantly, slows down the hunt by doing the wrong things, and drinks all the water in their canteens.


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Setting and Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in Generic City, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. For one thing, there are no generic cities in America–or anywhere else in the world. (I would love to plunge into the character of European cities, for example, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the US.) Each major metropolis has its own unique vibe, character, and tempo whether it’s a planned retirement community in Miami, where the condos are sleek, modern, too manicured to look real, and the inhabitants wear Bermuda shorts and sweaters tied around their necks, or winding narrow streets and back ways in Baltimore, or avenues of abandoned old mansions in Detroit. Yes, there are elements common to nearly all large cities, but the atmospheres of New York City, Ft. Worth, and St. Louis are far from identical. What could be more divergent than New Orleans, El Paso, and San Diego? Are you dodging the selection of a big city because you don’t want to do the research? If so, why choose a location you don’t know?

Let’s move on to the dark alley as a scene locale:

While not all real alleys are dark–or even gloomy–writers of many genres find them to be practical places for various sorts of nefarious activities and/or danger. If you haven’t ventured into an alley lately, try it. Even in broad daylight, an alley can have a decidedly creepy, abandoned, utilitarian vibe that makes you feel surreptitious, as though you shouldn’t be there. Darkness, naturally, adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. After all, darkness hinders the physical sense of sight, which humans depend on. Darkness triggers primitive survival instincts. Darkness offers crime the opportunity to flourish. Therefore, alleys–both creepy and dark–are infinitely useful to fiction writers.

I am not taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for this post, I want you to reason through an impulse to use a dark alley. We’ll take it one step at a time:

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? Aha, it’s a trap. Okay, good. Now we understand that Vinny is luring someone there. Why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist, perhaps? Is Vinny planning to ambush Henry Hero? What if Vinny is instead after Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective here, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation for his trap? Are henchmen or minions scattered around to put 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 as these are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way. They serve to help you shape plot and visualize what your characters might encounter as they move into confrontations with each other. By mulling over questions like these, liking some of them and discarding others, you’re systematically planning your story instead of just jumping impulsively from one character action to another.

I have some additional questions:

Firstly, why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Did Vinny select it because of its proximity to the location where Henry Hero is expected to be? Or does he like it because it’s a dead end and Henry can be trapped into a shootout? Maybe, instead, this alley cuts through an area and provides a shortcut? No, wait. If Vinny is planning an ambush, then a shortcut doesn’t fit story needs. On the other hand, if Vinny is planning a shakedown instead of an assassination, then maybe an alley that goes somewhere is best for his purposes.

Plotting, you see, 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 bland, one-size-fits-all location and forcing them into haphazard confrontation.

Let’s ask some more questions:

What else is present in this metropolitan alley? Remember that alleys in Smalltown are different from those in Metropolis. Some alleys in Smalltown will be unpaved, muddy, full of broken glass. In Metropolis, some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are for the use of delivery or garbage trucks, so these byways are often filled with litter and feature Dumpsters and recycling receptacles, loading docks, ramps, and utility doors.

Do homeless people shelter in this alley? If so, what types of detritus, cardboard-box sleeping quarters, and trash are scattered around? Are there narrow side yards containing guard dogs that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras? What does this alley look and smell like? Are there rats?

Okay, maybe my questions are starting to overwhelm you. You’re thinking I go way overboard with too many questions and details. But my alley is coming to life. It’s becoming vivid in my imagination. How’s your generic one doing?

Maybe you don’t want to deal with Vinny the Villain at all. Maybe you just need a corpse found in a dark alley so you can insert a crime scene into your story. No problem! Let’s consider this body and where it’s been dumped.

How did it end up in this alley? Was the victim killed here, or was the victim murdered elsewhere and brought to this place? If the latter, how was the body transported? What forensic evidence will be left? Were there any witnesses? If you’re writing about Smalltown and it’s a graveled alley where the trash cans are kept at the back of people’s yards, does anyone’s dog bark? Is the killer seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew? If your story is in Metropolis, is the killer observed by a homeless man? And if that scenario has worn too thin for you, is the killer seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater? After all, in NYC’s Broadway district, that’s when cabs are hard to get. In San Diego, the couple might be walking because it’s a beautiful evening and they want to watch the moon shining over the bay.

Why was this particular alley chosen as a dumping point for the body, as opposed to any other alley in the community? Please don’t tell me it was just random, and the villain didn’t plan anything. Because if so, then why wasn’t the murder planned? And if not planned, what are the consequences for the killer who now must weigh options or else be caught immediately?

The more you think through the details involved in where your story action takes place, the more specific and non-generic you’ll be. The more specific you are, the more believable your setting becomes. And the more vivid and plausible your setting, the more your story comes alive.

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Swamp Survival Strategy 7: Incorporating Multiple Story Lines–Part B

The last technique I want to address in this series on coping with a book’s second act has to do with Hidden Story. This is the third of three story lines that books contain. It’s not a subplot. It is instead what’s happening among your characters who are offstage.

You dramatize the Ongoing Story (your main plot line) in successive scenes and present them onstage for readers. But while that story action is happening, what is going on behind those scenes?

Hidden Story runs parallel to and simultaneously with Ongoing Story. Consequently, it’s far more challenging to handle than Back Story. The Back Story is about character secrets and motivations. It’s invented as needed. Hidden Story is about staging the next conflict that will take place. It’s about the trouble that will hit your protagonist next. Most of the time, Hidden Story is far more important to a book’s progression than Back Story. Hidden Story should be plotted with as much care as the Ongoing Story.

Don’t let this intimidate you. In your first few learning-novel manuscripts you may not deal with Hidden Story other than indirectly as you keep track of what your antagonist is doing, plotting, scheming, and planning when not confronting the protagonist in scene action. It can be sufficient to focus on the central, dramatized plot and simply figure out where and when the antagonist will throw a plot twist at your hero.

However, you may find yourself with that empty stretch of pages in the middle where nothing seems to be happening the way you planned. You may find your ongoing story action stalled while your protagonist waits passively for plot developments to unfold. You may feel that you’ve lost your way. You may worry that the excitement of your opening is fading.

When you start to want more from your book idea, when you find yourself eager to add dimension, when you feel ready to stretch and grow a bit, then it’s time to take on the strategy of where and when you’ll reveal glimpses of Hidden Story to your readers. Doing this in the book’s swampy, dismal, gloomy, dark middle can spark new interest in moving the plot forward.

Handling Hidden Story can be managed in either single viewpoint or in multiple viewpoint. Most of the time, Hidden Story involves tracking the movements of the antagonist, although the POV shift can move focus to any secondary character capable of carrying a subplot.

If you choose to write from a single POV, the Hidden Story will be much more hidden. Readers don’t know what’s going through the villain’s mind. They have to settle for allusions through character action, behavior, reaction, and dialogue.

If you choose to shift viewpoints, Hidden Story becomes much easier to handle because the characters are onstage more often. Readers gain the privilege of seeing much of the antagonist’s plotting and planning against the protagonist. Readers are privy to actions which serve to raise new threats over the hero or endanger people the hero cares about.

Of course, if you’ve never tackled multiple POV before, you may not feel ready to take it on. That’s perfectly okay. Remember that I’ve shared six other strategies for keeping your book’s middle from sagging, bogging down, or drowning. However, if you decide to shift viewpoint to try this strategy, please remember that changing viewpoint effectively requires adept story sense and timing. You need to set hooks and switch clearly from your protagonist’s perspective to follow story action that doesn’t involve your primary character.

Please understand that if you stick to one viewpoint, your story’s plot twists will be less predictable and more surprising to readers.

On the other hand, if you choose multiple viewpoints, you can raise threat and generate suspense, but it’s possible to reveal too much Hidden Story and thereby undermine your plot twists.

The proper handling and management of the three story lines can make a vital difference in whether your manuscript seems to flow plausibly from character goals and motivations instead of featuring puppet characters being moved too visibly by the author’s hand.

The proper handling and management of these three story lines will also affect your decisions of how to order your scenes and their reactions for the best dramatic result. Just remember that although Hidden Story often will be revealed for the first time in the dismal middle, you should have plotted it carefully in your initial outline. You will also wait for the revision process to best determine where you’ll allow Hidden Story and Ongoing Story to intersect.

And so this wraps up the seven strategies for dealing with the dismal swamp. Using one or several of these techniques should help you navigate the most challenging section of a novel and make it as much fun to write as it is to read.

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It’s been brought to my attention that in the print version of my book on revision–FICTION FORMULA FIX-IT–the end of Chapter 3 duplicates the same DOs and DON’Ts box that ends Chapter 2.

Chapter 3 should instead end with the following:


*Make and keep a separate document file of your original rough draft for reference. Do not work directly from this file.

*Secure extra copies of your work for safekeeping.

*Organize your notes for changes you wish to make.

*Answer the questions in this chapter and use your answers to form a checklist of revision tasks. Add as many tasks as you deem necessary.

*Divide your revision tasks into categories of EASY, CHALLENGING, and TOUGH.

I’m not sure if everyone’s print version contains the error, but my original file shows no problem. That means somewhere in the mysterious workings of Amazon, a goof has occurred.

If your print copy has this error, I apologize. How ironic that a book on revision should need such a “fix.”


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Swamp Survival Strategy 7: Incorporating Multiple Story Lines–Part A

This method of keeping the middle of your book from sinking involves how you manage potentially three differing story lines and where you allow them to intersect.

No, I’m not referring to subplots.

Novels can have up to three story lines. These are

the ongoing story,

the back story,

the hidden story.

Although the midsection of your book is not really the place to start thinking about them, it’s often where one of them may appear or where more than one will connect.

So let’s define them before I elaborate on how to put them to use.

Ongoing story is your book’s main plot. It’s the central line of events built on your protagonist’s story goal. Ongoing story features the plot events you’ve been working with from the beginning of your manuscript. Sometimes referred to as the “present story,” the ongoing plot is what’s happening onstage in front of the reader, and it’s dramatized in plot units called scenes or sequel/reactions. It’s part of the story’s present in that it doesn’t deal with past events.

Back story involves past history or events that have already occurred. Back story may center on old feuds and quarrels, on past relationships, on secrets, on long-resented troubles. These are part of your story’s background or part of your characters’ backgrounds. What’s most important to remember about back story is that if you don’t need it for your main, ongoing plot to make sense, don’t use it.

Hidden story is the action taking place out of sight while your dramatized scenes are played for readers. It’s happening simultaneously to the ongoing story, but it’s not shown.

Back Story

Some plots simply don’t need a back story. Sometimes, what’s occurred before a story opens has no significance whatsoever. As an example, John Grisham’s legal thriller, The Firm, represents a highly successful novel almost totally lacking in back story. The book contains a brief reference to the protagonist’s brother who’s serving a prison sentence for an unspecified crime. That information informs readers of why the hero Mitch probably went into law, but otherwise it has no bearing on what follows.

The book also mentions a prior FBI investigation into two unexplained deaths of attorneys, and that’s all. Grisham’s fast-paced thriller doesn’t need meandering through old family histories or in-office squabbles. He wisely keeps his story focused on the present plot events.

So what is back story good for? It’s the source of character motivation. It can provoke extreme character reactions–extreme, that is, for whatever is happening in the ongoing story. Characters who overreact can inject drama, unpredictability, and added texture. Readers’ curiosity is piqued as to what lies behind such an overreaction.

Back story can also turn a moderately interesting plot into an exciting one. Even in plots where the action/conflict is almost entirely in the ongoing story, injecting a plot twist or some complication arising from the protagonist’s past can heighten the drama.

The swampy, dismal middle of a book project is a good place to inject trouble from the past. Very often, the shocking central event comes straight from back story when a terrible secret is revealed, or violent action is taken in revenge for a past wrong, or a character springs into drastic action due to motivations stemming from old history.

With all that in mind, how do you determine how much back story is necessary? How do you know if you should use just a little or a lot?

Genre affects this decision. For example, a mystery is all about delving into back story to uncover motive and opportunity, to break alibis, to sift old hurts and rivalries, and to bring truth out into the open. A thriller, depending on whether it’s an action-heavy techno thriller or a psychological crime book about serial killings, may depend heavily on the back story for understanding what drives a killer to strike again and again or may not need to delve into the past when there’s plenty of present-day danger for the protagonist to cope with.

If your story hinges on back story and your plot relies heavily on dredging up past secrets, then you need to plot and outline that past history with care. That will take time and thought to ensure it makes sense and is plausible. After all that work, however, understand that you won’t share all of it with readers.

The back story outline is a tool to assist you the writer. It will help you decide exactly which secrets will be revealed. You’ll select which old conflicts can be hashed out and finally resolved.

The middle of the book can be where action slows down and explanations are shared between characters, revealing some relevant pieces of the past that help make what’s happening in the ongoing story more understandable. It doesn’t mean you will bring your ongoing story to a halt while you dump endless pages of background on your hapless reader.

I’m always advising fantasy writers to avoid showering background explanation on readers in the opening pages of a book. Therefore, after all that restraint, the middle is an appropriate place to share it–but only a little.

Keep your perspective and understand the difference between what readers need to know in order to understand your story versus what you need to know in order to understand why your characters are behaving the way they do. Only supply readers with the minimum to comprehend and follow your plot.

As helpful as back story can be, please heed this warning that it carries pitfalls. You can become caught up in past events and sidetrack yourself. If this occurs, you run the risk of splitting your book’s focus. You might not think that matters, but a split focus makes it nearly impossible to end a book plausibly.

If your back story proves intriguing enough to readers from the small bits and hints that you drop across the middle act of your novel, you could eventually be asked by an editor to write a prequel. Then you can really let yourself go and have fun developing the back story in enough detail for it to morph into an ongoing story line.

Remember that back story can be inserted into your manuscript’s middle in two or three paragraphs of swift narrative summary. You don’t have to make a long production of it, but it can keep readers hooked until you reach the third act and start plot dominoes tumbling toward the story climax.

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Swamp Survival Strategy 6: Increase the Suspense Quotient

Usually most genre books have some degree of built-in suspense as to their eventual outcome. Romance is an exception, in that the outcome nearly always results in a relationship commitment between the two primary characters. However, the misunderstandings and tribulations they endure create a small degree of suspense over how they will work things out.

Basically, if a book is written with a goal-centered protagonist opposed directly by an antagonist, then readers turn pages with some degree of suspense/anticipation as to how, where, why, and whether the protagonist will succeed.

Thrillers, suspense, mystery, and urban fantasy books, naturally, employ additional methods to heighten suspense from start to finish. And therefore, as a swamp strategy, I strongly suggest that you borrow some of these techniques to help fill a sagging story middle. It not only perks up reader interest, but I have found that it keeps me more involved in my story. The writing process stays fun instead of becoming a monotonous slog.

Let’s look at some of the ways suspense can be generated or boosted.

Establish reader sympathy for the next victim. By the center of the book, you should have a strong bond built between your protagonist and readers. However, if your midpoint is going to feature the death of a secondary or minor character as a shocker plot twist, then make sure you put a brief spotlight on this individual and feature some action or personality revelation that makes him or her either likable, vulnerable, or poignant. Take care with this approach because you don’t want to telegraph the danger that’s about to strike. But if you can evoke reader sympathy–however briefly–then the shocker will carry stronger emotional impact. Sympathy can be launched in a sentence or two. No massive character background info-dump is necessary.

Set a clock ticking in the second act. Whether the deadline is a literal one or a psychological one, establishing that time is running out brings a sense of urgency that keeps plots from losing momentum. Ticking clocks can be a bomb detonator set to explode at a certain hour. It can be a slow-acting poison administered to someone the protagonist cares about, necessitating a race to find an antidote. It can be a looming hurricane approaching the coast and forcing people to evacuate. It can be criminals holding hostages in a bank.

Don’t open that door. The ancient Greeks created the myth of Pandora’s box to illustrate the dangers of curiosity. Without being curious, mankind can’t move forward or make discoveries. Yet curiosity can tempt the unwary into all sorts of difficulties. As a suspense technique, the “door” that shouldn’t be opened can be an address or locale that’s off limits. It can be an actual locked door within a spooky old house. It can be the questions asked by an investigator or the background check on a suspect. Is there a place in your story’s middle where your protagonist can prowl in forbidden areas? Secrets are always fascinating, aren’t they?

Set up a series of obstacles. Some thrillers put their protagonists through a harrowing ordeal of physical challenges. Think of every James Bond plot you’ve ever read or watched. Sooner or later, Bond must infiltrate the lair/stronghold/citadel/laboratory/mansion of the villain–working his way past guards, traps, sharks, pitfalls, attack dogs, and henchmen. Throw in a ticking clock or sense of urgency, add a dose of extra sympathy, and make certain your protagonist is trying to open a door that shouldn’t be unlocked, and your plot will benefit. However, if your story isn’t action-adventure, then a series of obstacles can be a series of riddles to be solved or optical illusions to master or a spellcasting to countermand. Cracking a code or deciphering the missing element in a chemical formula are variations of obstacles.

Isolate your characters. Whether your protagonist actually infiltrates the villain’s territory by venturing behind enemy lines, or simply remains behind to hold on while sidekicks are sent for help, the point of this tactic is to isolate your main character and thereby intensify the danger he or she is in. In Agatha Christie’s suspense masterpiece, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, the entire group of characters is immediately isolated by being lured to a remote island without any means of leaving. Their isolation casts an initial feeling of unease over the company, and when deaths start occurring, their entrapment with no way to get help adds to their danger. Although in contemporary fiction the invention of cell phones mitigates this effect, writers simply create dead zones, make Wi-Fi unreliable, or drop calls. Think how cut off and uneasy you feel if you inadvertently leave your phone behind. Emails and texts can’t reach you–bliss–but you can’t help but wonder, what if I should need to reach someone in an emergency?

Use atmosphere. Let the works of Edgar Allen Poe guide you in how to employ atmosphere, mood, setting, and even weather to increase the creepy factor your book may need. Storms and downpours create an atmosphere of gloom and isolation. They hamper our senses. Be sensitive to the setting details you’re mentioning or describing. Radiant sunshine in a lovely flower-strewn meadow makes us happy. Booming thunder and hammering cold rain make us huddle for shelter and dive into caves or creepy old deserted houses where we shouldn’t normally venture.

Danger should be real. Beware of creating phony danger that turns out to be a false alarm. It’s inadvisable to warn of danger, to build anticipation toward your protagonist having to confront that danger, and then end up rescued in the nick of time or finding nothing in the locked room after all. This kind of plotting is, at best, weak. At its worst it’s known in the writing biz as a “paper tiger.” Fake danger is considered a cheap trick, and it infuriates readers. Earlier this week, I was listening to a half-hour old radio program from the 1950s, a mystery featuring the detective Rick Diamond. Normally Rick is snarky, self-assured, and always investigating his way into trouble that beats him up, shoots at him, or knocks him cold. This particular episode featured a murder victim that had been beaten to death. Details were gruesome, including a broken back and crushed throat. Rick, of course, ended up locked in a cellar with a creepy giant of a man who intended to do the same kind of violence to him. Up till this point, the story had been suspenseful and harrowing. Imagining Rick scrambling in that gloomy cellar, trying to avoid grappling with an immense man with long swinging arms and a habit of muttering to himself about “having to kill another one,” was hair-raising stuff. And then, just as Rick was about to be snapped in half, rescue arrived–very contrived rescue–with an awkward verbal explanation of how the police lieutenant just happened to figure out Rick was there and in trouble. No doubt, the writer ran out of time or minutes or ideas and had to do something to meet the deadline, but his “solution” was a phony and a cheat. It made me angry that I’d wasted time listening to it. That’s the worst Diamond program I’ve ever encountered. Actually, it’s the only bad script I’ve come across in the Diamond episodes, so I won’t give up on the show but I’ll never trust it quite the same way again.

These are a few tactics to add danger, zest, unpredictability, and excitement to the central portion of your book. Thrillers employ these and more from start to finish, but I’ve chosen these because they work very well for second acts. Utilize them all or just a few or simply one, and see if you aren’t happier with the result.

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Swamp Survival Strategies 4: Multiple Viewpoints, Part a

Viewpoint in fiction is a vital component to a rich, entertaining immersion of the reader into your story world and the heart and soul of your protagonist. Viewpoint is what prose writers bring to the party that the razzle-dazzle color, moving images, and special effects of movies and television just can’t deliver. Movies can’t put audiences into the mind of a character. Therefore, watching movies–while helpful for plot, pacing, setting, and character design–won’t teach you how to handle viewpoint.

Movies show their audience what’s happening from the outside.

Novels let readers experience what’s happening from the inside out.

Viewpoint, remember, is about placing readers in the thoughts and emotions of a person at the center of the story’s action.

Simple plots fare better with a single viewpoint–that of the protagonist–from start to finish. However, some stories are long, complex, intricate, and need multiple character viewpoints to bring an author’s vision to the page. Novels with several subplots may require a viewpoint shift to follow the story action.

Very often, the middle of a novel brings a decided change of pace after a frenetic first act. The midsection is where writers seek to fill in background explanation that’s been deferred or they want to open up subplots or they want to twist the plot by revealing the villain’s identity. Therefore, it’s common to utilize a shift of viewpoint to the villain’s perspective. Other viewpoints may be utilized as well to follow the story, especially if the protagonist is going to be sidelined for a few pages.

Keep in mind that if you decide to shift to the villain’s perspective, you are in effect creating a subplot with the villain as its protagonist. The subplot will have its conflict progression and conclude with its own miniature climax. Each viewpoint you utilize in a novel manuscript should, in fact, launch and carry a subplot.

By approaching multiple viewpoint this way, you avoid the bad habit of jumping at random into the thoughts or emotions of various characters just for the sake of variety or just because you can’t think of what should happen next.

The very basics of viewpoint management are as follows:

In genre fiction, you choose whether you intend to write your story in first-person viewpoint (me, myself, and I) or third-person viewpoint (he, she, or it).

Single limited viewpoint means the story is restricted to the protagonist’s perspective only (either in first-person or in third-person) for the duration of the book.

Multiple limited viewpoint means that at any given point, the story is restricted to one viewpoint at a time. Most often, multiple-viewpoint plots are written in third-person. Occasionally they do appear in first-person, although you’re asking readers to make a larger mental leap from one character to the next.

To decide whether you want to focus your plot on a single viewpoint or expand to two or more, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will changing viewpoint make my story better?
  2. Will changing viewpoint make my story more dramatic?
  3. Will changing viewpoint make my story less predictable, or will it rob my plot of twists?
  4. Do I need to change viewpoint to improve my story?
  5. Do I want to change viewpoint to share with readers what all my characters are thinking?

Forget what you want. Write what you need.

To be continued …

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