Setting #4 – Share a setting from your story

This month we’ve answered lists of setting questions, gone outside, and used a room to describe a character. Now let’s see your settings in action.

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Show me what you got.

Let’s see a setting from a story you have written or are working on now. You could share an actual excerpt where you describe a setting in narrative, or you can compose a separate piece laying out a setting that you plan to use.

My best answer for this comes from a story I published called Painted Blue Eyes. The excerpt starts like this:

In the cramped space between ceiling and roof, I stepped around furniture older than any living relative. Rocking chairs and antique tables were hidden under filthy rags or tangled in cobwebs. I came to an ancient brown sofa, its seats bandaged many times over with duct tape.

I encourage you to share from your work, and I’ll post more on Thursday!

 

Setting #2 – Results

Time to see some characters’ bedrooms!

On Tuesday we talked about your character’s bedroom. I’m going to give my own example, and I encourage you to check how much I let the reader know about my character, William Flynn.

We’re actually focusing on two skills at once here – developing setting descriptions AND character building! My goal is to try to tell a few things I think you need to know about William Flynn while describing his personal space as well.

Feel free to give me feedback – how could I give more detail about the room and Flynn’s personality without adding too many words? How could I add more sensory detail in the room description?

Look for the same criticism in your own work, and please post a sample as a reply or post a link to your own blog.

All right then, here’s what I have. I present William Flynn’s bedroom:

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Setting #2 – A Character’s Bedroom

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What impression do you get about the person who uses this room? Photo by Ben Babcock, flic.kr/p/49Fy3M

Time for the second exercise on Settings!

These writing exercises are intended to help beginners who are stuck, but I try to make them useful for writers of all levels.

 

Last week we talked about your character’s hometown, so now let’s find out about his bedroom.

Exercise #2 – Describe a character using his or her bedroom.

What does Captain America’s bedroom look like? How about Harry Potter’s?

If you have a character who loves cats, what does her bedroom look like? How about someone who hates other people?

For this exercise, assume your character is the only regular occupant of the room – we want to shape the setting from this one character’s personality. If your character is not single at the start of your story, you could imagine what their bedroom would’ve been like before meeting their lover, or you could describe their personal study or office space.

You can use any character in this piece. You can create a character, or you could use a character from a book, TV show, or movie. This character will not appear in the piece. You are narrating as an observer who walks into their room – nobody is in this room right now.

Describe everything you see, hear, and smell. What is on the floor? On the bed? On the desk? Is there something unusual about the bed? Is everything neat and clean, or is it messy and dirty? Look for ways to give hints about the character’s job, hobbies, favorite animal, secret desires, or any other details you could place into the decor or arrangement of items in the room.

 

You can check your writing by looking at the sensory info and descriptions. How much detail can a reader learn about the character? Are there descriptive details about things one can see, hear, smell, and touch? Taste might be a tricky sense to work with in a bedroom, but by all means run with it if it’s justifiable! (A character who can’t live without junk food might have something tasty out on his desk, for example).

I’m trying this exercise myself with a character from my works. He’s from a sci-fi setting, so this will be an extra challenge for me to work in a few details from the future.

I’ll start with a couple sentences today, and the rest on Thursday. I hope you’ll share your character’s bedroom as well!

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Writing Exercises – Setting #1 Results

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On Tuesday this week, I asked:

Where did your main character grow up?

I’ll go through some of those questions for William Flynn (the character I have planned for the events of my coming Far Flung novel). I avoid naming the hometown – I might put a name to it in the story, but for now I don’t think I need one.

I ramble on, a lot – this isn’t even half of the backstory I have for Flynn’s upbringing. This should happen – once you get started on an exercise like this, you should start making connections and filling in more detail than you strictly need.

But hey, who knows what little nugget of background story might become important later, so I say, write away!

I hope you will share a little bit of what you wrote for your character’s hometown.

Here are my own musings, just to give you an idea if you’re stuck:

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Writing Exercises for April – Setting

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Time to start the next series of writing exercises! Let’s focus on settings.

These writing exercises are intended to help beginners who are stuck, but I try to make them useful for writers of all levels.

Last month focused on solidifying your character as a fully developed person with motivations and ambitions. This month, we’re looking at the setting for your story.

Let’s kick this off with a simple question:

Where did your main character grow up?

Choose any POV character from any story you are working on, or you can make a new character for this. I want you to tell me as much as you possibly can about the character’s hometown (or the place they grew up if it’s not a town or city).

Even if the character’s hometown doesn’t appear in the story, I still want you to do this – you’ll have an easier time selling the reader on your main character as your character relates their current situation to their earlier experiences.

Your Character’s Hometown:

  • What kind of place is it? City, town, hamlet, ranch, etc.?
  • What’s the weather usually like? Cold winters, hot summers, lots of rain, dry and dusty, etc.?
  • Are your character’s neighbors generally poor, rich, or middle-class? Are most people able to afford basics like food, shelter, and education?
  • Are most people well-educated or not? Is there a college or university nearby?
  • Do most people have the same job (like in a mining town), or are there a variety of jobs available? Is there a lot of unemployment?
  • Are there a variety of ethnicities represented in this area, or are most people from a one or two ethnic backgrounds?
  • Are there a variety of religions represented, or is there generally one religion everyone is expected to share? Or do most people just not talk about it?
  • What do people do for fun? Think about nightlife, bars, cafes, parks, and other entertainment available in this environment.
  • Does your character like their hometown? What do they like and hate about it?
  • Do other folks around your character generally share these likes and dislikes? (For example, maybe everybody thinks the local pubs serve piss for beer, or maybe everyone is super proud of the local college).
  • If a middle-class tourist from a well-developed city visited this hometown, what do you think they would notice first? Friendly people, dirty streets, lots of coffee shops, expensive cars parked at shoddy houses, or some other detail that would stand out immediately to the majority of visitors.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should help you get started.

Think of other details you can add that will tell me about your main character’s hometown and write about half a page.

I’ll share my own details about William Flynn, one of the main POV characters from Far Flung, on Thursday.

Keep on writing!

 


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Exercise 4 Results – Raising the Stakes

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On Tuesday, I asked you to raise the stakes for your characters.

Now I want you to go back and assess how well you raised the stakes. Here are some criteria to look for in your answers to Tuesday’s exercise:

  • Does the main problem threaten the character’s life or the completion of a goal that is super-important to that character?

  • After you raise the stakes, is it now even more difficult for your character to achieve his or her goal?

  • Even if you did not write it out, do you have some sort of solution in the back of your mind?

  • Does the solution draw on the character’s established set of skills or something they learn or find during the story?

The first two points above are to help you generate a nice, suspenseful thrill for your readers, while the last two are to help you avoid painting yourself in a corner. Things should look grim for your character, but you have to have some solution in mind.

Special note – if your character does not survive:

In doing this exercise, you may use a character who does not make it to the end of the book. Okay, death happens and it sucks, but it can absolutely be the best thing for your story. Perhaps death is the tragic solution to your character’s problem – they were on a fool’s errand from the start, and only death would stop them. Perhaps their goal was something worth dying for, and their death solved the problem or enabled somebody else to solve it. Just avoid the trap of saying “Oh dear, the character is dead now, so their problem is gone.”

If the High Knight of Exampliphar was on a quest to clear his family name, he might die in his attempt, but you should avoid saying “Welp, his family name was never cleared. Sorry folks.” No, either his quest to clear the name is such a big or foolish errand that it becomes the end of him, or his death is exactly what clears the name. To just leave the family name hanging there, forever tainted, is far too much like real life (this is fiction, after all). There are authors who can pull off such realism and still have interesting stories, but I think it takes many years of experience – for beginners, I’d recommend having some sort of conclusion to each of the major threads you create (even if some of those threads span more than one book).

Okay, let me go back and re-assess my own Conflict 1 from Tuesday:

Character: William Flynn

Goal: He wants to be a respected news reporter.

I can look at two parts of this – respected, and news reporter. He gets flung across the universe, so there’s no news outlet he can work for. He still wants to be respected – as a rookie and a husband-to-be, it makes sense that earning respect is vital to him. He can also still desire to be a reporter – someone who chronicles the lives and struggles of others.

Problem: He is thrust into a unique role among his crew and has to figure out where his skills fit in.

His desire to be respected is threatened by a sudden change in role. His crew no longer needs a news reporter, but can his skills help in other ways? Perhaps he can still find ways to connect with the crew and their struggles?

How does this problem get worse? List a few possibilities:

  • He regularly interviews crew members as he asks for opinions on the captain’s responses to crises, but finds that many people don’t trust him.
    • I think his desire for respect is pretty clearly at stake here
  • He has several drone cameras that can fly outside the ship, and these prove useful in some situations. In a heated battle, however, he still finds himself on the sidelines.
    • He starts to find other ways he can help, but is he really doing enough?
  • He tries to aid as an interpreter when he accompanies the captain to negotiate with alien enemies, but ends up getting seriously injured in a firefight.
    • He’s not a fighter, but the ship and crew keep getting into danger. The captain won’t need him if he’s a liability – just what can he do?

Flynn’s desire for respect turns into a more basic need to aid the survival of the crew as the danger increases, but it’s always in the back of his mind. I can’t tell you exactly what role he ends up playing in the end, only that it is shaped by his encounters and actions in the story, and that it is driven by his base need for respect.

Your character should also have one or two base needs that drive their actions and shape their progression through the narrative.

 


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Writing Exercise – Raising the Stakes for Your Characters

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Last week, I asked you to write about conflicts facing your characters.

I gave these examples:

Character Goal: Flynn wants to be a good news reporter.

Conflict 1: He can’t be a reporter because he is the story now. He has to figure out his new role, and how he can help.

Character Goal: Flynn longs to be reunited with his long-time girlfriend, Darya Fitzgerald.

Conflict 2: His ship is stranded in unknown space on the other side of the universe.

Character Goal: He wants to be adored and respected among the colonists of his ship.

Conflict 3: When aliens start talking to him first, many colonists are wary and some even fear him.

Now I want to make my problems worse. This is the part where I have to be a bit careful – I’m in danger of giving away too much about a book I hope to sell. Hey, I have kids to put through university about 12 or so years down the road – can’t blame me for wanting a bit of help, if my writing can help me get it.

But hey, I don’t have to tell you how William Flynn solves any of these problems, do I? The same goes for you – I actually don’t want you to tell me how your characters solve anything, but you should have some of the details about the solutions in your mind. You want to raise the stakes, yes, but you also have to make sure you have some way out in mind. I wouldn’t want you to put your characters in impossible positions, but if your problems seem impossible to a reader before they finish your book, you’re doing a great job!

I’ll start with Conflict 1:

Character: William Flynn

Goal: He wants to be a respected news reporter.

Problem: He is thrust into a unique role among his crew and has to figure out where his skills fit in.

How does this problem get worse? List a few possibilities:

  • He regularly interviews crew members as he asks for opinions on the captain’s responses to crises, but finds that many people don’t trust him.
  • He has several drone cameras that can fly outside the ship, and these prove useful in some situations. In a heated battle, however, he still finds himself on the sidelines.
  • He tries to aid as an interpreter when he accompanies the captain to negotiate with alien enemies, but ends up getting seriously injured in a firefight.

 

It’s time for you to try. What are some ways your character’s problems could get worse?

Character:

Goal:

Problem:

How could this problem get worse? List a few possibilities: