Thursday, July 19, 2012

It's All in the Geography -- Part 2

Writing and Setting

Writing the beginning of a story is always a challenge. The opening of any book is vital and needs to encompass a variety of elements to capture the reader's attention. Character and conflict are essential, and equally important, and often times overlooked, is the setting. Where does the story begin, where does it take place? And at what point do we include the setting in the description? And how do we write the locale to blend naturally with the ebb and flow of the story?

How do you make your setting come to life?

It was the 4th of July in Rockport, Maine.
There is nothing wrong with this sentence; it tells us where the story takes place and the time of year. But intermingling the setting information with the action of the story would make the intro stronger and more interesting.

The annual 4th of July parade in Rockport, Maine was about to begin just as Jessica Smith arrived. Again, not bad, but still not really part of the action of the story.

Jessica Smith elbowed through the surging crowd gathered on the sunny sidewalks of Rockport, Maine. Although she was alone, Jessica searched for the perfect spot in the shade to view the annual 4th of July parade.
With these two sentences, we are introduced to the character of Jessica Smith. We know she's in Rockport Maine in July, that it's a hot sunny day, and we learn she's alone. Already we are more intrigued with the story. Who is Jessica and why is she alone at the Rockport 4th of July parade?

FYI: I don't know if Rockport, Maine has a 4th of July parade, this was written as an example.
Also, keep in mind, often times authors use fictional names for small towns to allow for more creative freedom.  ;)

During the course of the year, I help judge and critique several contests for various RWA chapters. I almost always judge contests where the participants are unpublished writers. Some are brand new writers looking for feedback. The setting, or lack there of, is one of the elements I always watch for and include in my comments and suggestions as needed. Statistically speaking, I would say about 50% of the submissions I read and judge, lack any significant setting.

A particular unpublished piece comes to mind when thinking about setting. The first chapter included a scene between a man and woman who meet on a dune overlooking the ocean. The story held great promise with intriguing characters and snappy dialogue. However, which ocean they stood above was never mentioned. The whole first chapter unfolded without any indication where the story took place (other than the ocean nearby) and there was no mention of the time of year or what type of weather was involved. I was never certain if the characters were looking at the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, or some other ocean in our wide vast world. For some readers, it may never have mattered. For me, what I recall the most of the story was not knowing the location.

Writers choose a variety of ways to introduce setting. Depending on the tone and scope of the story, the setting is handled in a myriad of ways. The location certainly doesn't have to be mentioned within the first few paragraphs, but at some point during the first few pages, it helps the reader to visualize the scene and believe more fully in the story and characters.

In my work in progress, I begin my book with telling the reader where and when the story takes place.

Chapter One
Lowell, Massachusetts

Although I tell the general location of chapter one, I still need to reveal where in the city of Lowell the scene unfolds. What time of day? Are the characters inside or out? Is it raining? Snowing? What is the lighting? The temperature? The characters and their conflict can be greatly enhanced through the use of a vivid description of setting.

Some may disagree, but I say don't rush your story. Embrace description.
 Let the reader savor the flavors of a character's sense time and of place.

Build the plot and conflict by allowing the weather to play an integral part in your storytelling.
Remember, bring the setting to life in the same way your characters need to be real, believable people.


Robin said...

Cindy -- This is a wonderful follow-up to your first blog on setting. I agree that it's important to mention place in the beginning of your story. Love the photos here, too!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Thanks for reading, Robin! :)