Saturday, October 24, 2009

Appearances Matter: Story Setting

What does every story need at it's very beginning? A character, in a setting, with a problem. Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived an old woman who was so poor she didn't have enough money to buy bread.
At the master's class, I learned, (and I wasn't alone) that I had a lot of problems with setting. Characters came through okay, problems percolated in the evil coffee machine, but setting? Not so much.
I just read a story for a workshop (not for the Lucky Labs) where all the errors I'd been guilty of with setting were amplified. A character arrived at home at twilight. Um ... home? What's home? A ranch? A mansion? A cardboard box? Is this in a neighborhood or a cottage in the woods with wolves howling in the distance?
If writers don't supply the details, the readers will fill in their own. The problem is, every reader has a different home in mind. When a Persian rug appears in the living room on page three, this may fit the reader's mental image, or it may shove the reader out of the story. After all, a Persian rug doesn't really belong in the Frank Lloyd Wright house they imagined.

The class really brought home the fact that writers are building a world, whether it's a familiar one or an alien one. Shorthand very seldom works. I can officially stop envying urban fantasy writers. Because, thinking about it, it's just as difficult to describe an urban landscape well as it is to drop the reader into an alien one. Maybe moreso--in an alien landscape, the reader isn't busy filling in false details. They wait for the writer to let them know what color the trees are, and whether those trees have tentacles or not.

The fall colors this year, speaking of colors of trees, are incredible. That's what you get when you have a really cold previous winter. Our view of the Gorge takes my breath away, and the light filtering through stormy clouds runs the full array of autumn gold to cold, pale, winter light, depending on the time of day. I'll have to post a pic soon, and pics of the happy dogs playing Don't Catch. Finn, btw, had actually begun to play actual fetch while Brian was away. Brian quickly reminded him of the rules, and now everything's back to normal.


Kai Jones said...

What does a story need at it's beginning? Superfluou's apostrophe's! :)

Kami said...

And at least one semi-colon. :-)