Thursday, November 17, 2011

Setting Things Straight

By Jay Stringer

Setting is a loaded concept. Setting can be a place, it can be a time, it can be the thing that cement does after you've poured it over a dead body. It can be a character. We hear that one a lot, right? What I love about this novel is that the city becomes a character. Yet a place doesn't do things. A place doesn't drive the plot. It's the people in it that do that.

I usually flip things around when it comes to writing advice. I don't talk about setting all that much. I talk about context. An argument needs context, so does a joke, or a conversation. Context helps to define place,class, identity, ideology and actions. It defines whether our scared protagonist is pointing that gun in self defence or attack.

It's not just about where the story is set, but when, why and how. It's also one of the most important factors in reaching clarity, the real juice of story-telling. Where are we in the story, and where are we in the scene. That applies both physically and mentally. Think of it all as one and the same. Start to connect the two as you write.

In previous weeks we've talked about plot and character. We've discussed how to set up who your guy is, and what he wants. The final ingredient that turns those two things into a story is context. Out of this we get the obstacles, the difficulties, the motivations and the limitations.

A story set in Glasgow city centre at 2pm is going to be different to a story set in Glasgow city centre at 2am. The location is the same, but the setting is different. The context is different. At the risk of generalising, the internal monologue of a male character walking down that street might well be different to the internal monologue of a woman walking down that street. Both scared, but both having different fears. Again, the location is the same, and now the time is the same, but the context is still different.

People often say that Gotham is a distinctive character in Batman stories. But what the fictional city actually does is reveal character. Gotham is a reflection of the hero; it's providing a context to his story and obstacles for him to overcome.

Stories need tension to be interesting, and that can be either internal or external. But if you use your setting well, you can bridge the gap between the two. Gotham took away Batman's parents. Bruce Wayne is both Gotham's' most celebrated son, and most famous victim. All you do then is fill in the blanks to play to those two angles, so that the setting reveals the character.

Gotham may be fictional, but New York isn't. Matt Scudder walks the streets of Hells Kitchen in over fifteen mystery novels. Lawrence Block used a mixture of fictional and real locations; the bars and coffee shops were real, the murder locations tended to be fictional. But these stories were not documentaries, they were not journalism. The locations worked in relation to Scudder. They formed his world, they told us things about him. His sparse hotel room told us where he was both emotionally and physically. When he moved into a nicer apartment later on, that told us how he was changing, but the fact that he still kept the old hotel room as well told us something important. The passing of time in the city saw gentrification of his old stomping ground, but really that was telling us about Scudder, not the city.

"Realism," is a phrase that gets used often when describing crime genre, and again is often used to describe setting. But there is no such thing. Realism in fiction is an elaborate con job. We just give small details to trick the reader into a feeling of realism. (Pffft, if only there was a fancy French word for that.) And it's an easy con job, because the readers want us to pull it off, and their brains are programmed to help us, they will fill in the blanks if we give the right cues.

Okay, okay. You came here for tips and you got a lecture on context and some waffle about a comic book city. But where's the practical help, huh?

Okay, okay. Delegation, that is the key. Don't be afraid to delegate work to your reader.

Part of the trick to setting -to all writing- is leaving things out. It goes back to that con job, that trick. If you want a setting to really resonate with a reader and come to life in their heads, you need them to be doing a lot of the work, you need them to be making it into something that will stick. Don't over do the descriptions. Give the reader a few small details to latch onto. Something that's on the wall, or a smell, or a temperature. Give one or two small details that are specific to that location, something that will be unique about the setting just as if you're describing a facial feature of a character.

Then forget describing the patterns on the carpet or the colour of the curtains and get into your characters' head. How does that setting affect the character? What unique obstacles does it present? What are your characters emotions in this setting? From there -with one telling physical detail and then some character specific information- your readers can go about the hard work of actually constructing the location in their heads.

But always be mindful, what does this location reveal about my characters? If the answer is nothing then consider changing the location, or cutting the scene.

And, as with last week, don't sweat the big things. Build this story one scene at a time. One location at a time. You don't need to build Gotham, you just need to describe some of it's rooms and streets, and how they affect your characters. The reader will do the rest.

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