The place is important in the setting, but it also needs to create a connection to the characters and the situation. For example is the location a sleepy village or a bustling city? Are the citizens staunch conservatives or progressives. Are there multiple churches and faiths, or just a few houses of worship? Is it a comfortable atmosphere, or are there tense under currents?
How would you describe the downtown architecture: modern, traditional, or colonial? Do you feel a sense of history? Are there historic statues in the parks? Are there markers providing facts about the events or the sites? Are there parades on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day? What about the 4th of July?
As your protagonist walks the streets, do the citizens greet him or ignore him? Are the people divided between the haves and have nots?’ Who’s the money man?
With these choices in mind, write the opening paragraph of your novel or short story.
Twilight settled softly on the dusty town. A gentle breeze moved the leaves and dirt across the weathered boards of the sidewalk. Stanton stepped down the two wooden steps and on to the concrete road. He’d been in town for two days and no one except the waitress in the diner had said “Hi” to him. Burnett, Texas was just like him mother had described, dirty, depressing, and dead.
When I begin working on a new project, I have an idea of where I will build the story. In other words, where do I want to place my characters? I try to use familiar locations or places where I’ve lived instead of trying to traverse Central Park when I’ve never been there. Even though you can get some feel of Central Park from a travel guide, it’s risky to attempt to describe the park when you’re not sure if a particular site is in the north or west part of the park.
When writing How Do You Like Me Now, I used a small west Texas town. It’s one of those places where everyone knows his neighbor, how often the husband and wife fight, and that Jack was arrested for DWI again. There are good things and bad, but then that’s true of every place. By placing my characters in this town, I could describe the shot-gun house, the long, tree-lined driveway and the huge pecan tree in the back yard. Of course there was a porch swing.
With a familiar setting, you have a better grasp of the citizens. Are they side-takers? Do they accept strangers? Do they fear authority? Can they accept change?
Bottom line is setting is more than just a location. The setting encompasses not only the size and location of the town; it’s also the character of the place. It’s the people and their flaws and good qualities. That’s why I would be hesitant to set a story in a place I had never visited
I remember someone, obviously not a writer, say that journalists have an advantage when writing fiction, because they are used to writing. Truth is writing for a news cast, a radio slot, or even a newspaper is the complete opposite of writing fiction. For example I had to learn about settings.
Journalism is almost strictly Who, What, Where, When, Why. You might have 30 seconds to tell the story. You don’t have time to talk about the sunny afternoon with the temperature in the eighties. Its John Doe drove his car into a house on the corner of 45th and some street on Sunday at 2 P.M. because he was intoxicated. The driver was taken to the hospital and released after treatment. The police are investigating.
Fiction relies, to a certain extent, on details. Think of Snoopy’s standard opening, “It was a dark and stormy night.” This begins to set the scene. There’s a storm. John Doe opened the car door and stepped out into the ankle deep puddle. It had been raining all day, and in the darkness, he hadn’t noticed the flooded driveway. He shivered as the icy water soaked his shoes and jeans legs. He fumed as he stomped toward the front door. Wasn’t it bad enough that his girlfriend of twelve months had broken up with him? Now he was soaked and freezing. And what did she mean “he couldn’t commit?”
Now we have the setting. So we just have to decide where we go next.
I love listening to men and women who know how to tell a story. As difficult as writing a good story is, speaking off the top of the head, is beyond my comprehension. I listened to Jeff Campbell tell the story of the Sand Creek Massacre. He began by telling the point of view of the military leaders who hated the Indian tribes. Their hate grew until they decided to take out a meeting of the leaders of the Indian nations and government officials. In the early hours of the morning, US cavalry invaded land around Sand Creek.’
And then the scene changes. The tribesmen awakened from sleep are confused. They hear the gunfire and gather around the flag pole where a flag of truce flies. The soldiers surround them. And then…
Jeff has a masterful way of moving from one point of view to another. The change is so seamless there is no hiccup in the story. Every point of view brings out the emotions, fears, and confusion of the parties as they are attacked and killed. Every bit of hate and disdain from the soldiers is evident as they pull the triggers. And what about the shocked silence of the soldiers who disagreed with the renegade military? Yes, you could feel their disbelief as men, women, and children fall. And the story is so masterful; you hear, see and feel the events as they unfold. You can even smell the gun powder in the air.
That ability is truly moving and exciting. It makes me wish I could write the way Jeff talks.
When writing a screenplay, I have to determine whose scene I’m writing. Let’s say a couple is having an argument. Who initiated the fight? If the woman started things, she would become my dominate character and would control the scene. She initiates the action and the dialogue. His responses and actions play off her accusations and domineering attitude.
Once the male character takes over the storyline, the point of view changes. The man initiates the dialogue and the action. He may take the scene by slapping the female character, grabbing her, or by turning the dialogue against her. Now he is in control and the other character follows his lead until the scene changes again.
Point of view changes constantly in movies, in novels and short stories. It’s the action that keeps the story moving. The he said/she said third person POV is, in my opinion, easier to write.
First person point of view allows the hero or heroine to tell the story. Some stories are better told from this point of view. Coming of age themes or man against himself are examples of first person POV.
I have not attempted Omniscient POV. Maybe that is because I tend to enjoy playing my characters off each other. It’s the kind of situation I feel most comfortable creating.
We work hard to make our stories perfect or as perfect as possible. Something often noticed in our own review or a critique session is the shift of the POV in the middle of a scene. There are different ways to make the correction without a major rewrite.
Double Double Space between the two POV paragraphs.
Insert a phrase that maintains the POV. Mary shouted. “It’s your fault our baby died.” Frank’s eyes narrowed… “Change to It’s your fault our baby died.” She saw his eyes narrow…
Change the setting. Frank walked out of the room. He was through with the constant reminders of his son’s death.
Sometimes plot twists are not satisfying. When the turn-on-a-dime is not set up, the twist falls flat. The inciting incident has no foundation and the reader is left asking. “What happened?” While you can’t spring the twist on the reader, you don’t need to beat them over the head with clues. It is possible to be subtle.
You don’t need a neon sign. Go simple with an unusual car. A vintage convertible from the fifties or sixties appearing in different places along the protagonist’s way hints “clue”. Or maybe “wait for it.” What about a telephone call? Maybe a piece of music stirs a hint of anticipation. Small, reoccurring incidents create a trail to that moment that changes the character’s life. It may be a few bread crumbs, but they allow the twists and turns of the story to have continuity instead of creating an earthquake.
I admire writers who can sit down and plan a work from “It was a dark and stormy night” to The End. I can’t do that because my mind works more on a “What if…” basis. My current work is a short story about a former Hollywood actress who is facing unwelcome visitors from her past. I have really enjoyed the “what if” game with this one.
For example, what if a co-conspirator turns traitor on the antagonist and joins the heroine? What if the mentor did not die of a heart attack? What if the antagonist goes crazy?”
What if the hero is too shy to say “I love you”? The real fun is that I’m not sure what the answers are? A character’s response to any of these situations can change the course of the story. Even small choices can have a major influence on the outcome of the narrative. I really can’t wait find out what happens next.
Have you ever picked up a book because the cover caught your eye? Then you read the synopsis and thought the book was a keeper? You read the first three chapters and put it down?
I have a stack of books like this ready to go to the library for their book sale. Sometime the book just doesn’t live up to the hype. The real question is Why hasn’t the story kept your attention? Maybe it was because the genre just wasn’t your cup of tea. Maybe one of the characters bothered you. Maybe it was contrived. But the simple answer might be that it is too predictable.
A good plot twist may be just the seasoning you need.
Imagine this. Carter’s mother disappeared three years ago. She hasn’t called, written, or sent a greeting card. The police believe she is dead, but there is no body. One snowy winter’s eve there’s a knock on the front door. Carter opens it and his mother is standing on the front step with a baby in her arms. Carter is dumbfounded. Who is the baby and why did his mother come home now?
This is a simple use of plot twist. This one event changes the course of the story. So how does the writer use this to enhance the story? The first consider whether or not the event impacts the story enough that you want to play on it. If you can make it work without it becoming a burden on the plot, use it. Develop the story using the twist. But if you have to contrive the action to make the twist work, stop. This twist is not the road your story should take. Plot twists are needed within the story to keep the readers interest and to move the plot to a satisfying end. To throw an event into the story for no logical reason or for the word count does not necessarily create a good story. Tossing a ghost in the midst of a romance might sound fun and thrilling, but the ghost has to have a purpose. He can’t just be the invisible guest in the room.