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Setting: Climate and Geography

Climate and geography can effect a character’s life in a variety of ways, and making use of those impacts can help you create a fuller environment.

Climate

The most basic ways that climate affects a character is adjusting everyday details like choices in clothing, what activities are available, possibility for adverse conditions, feelings toward weather or impacts on mood, and ability to spend time outdoors.

On another level, climate can effect a character’s worldview. For example, harsh climates often create harsh existences. Characters must struggle against the elements for survival as well as regular human problems. This can create physically and emotionally tough characters. Easier, softer environments may mean a character is less prepared for harsh situations or has a more optimistic or positive outlook.

Climate also affects the hobbies and skills a character might develop, as well as what opportunities or knowledge he or she might have. You won’t find many year-round ice rinks in the hot, Southwestern United States, but in colder northern states many children grow up playing hockey rather than soccer.

Being vague about climate is not a substitute for research and planning, so don’t just ignore it. Not only will you miss out on opportunities to create a character with more depth, your scenes may feel a little lackluster.

Geography

What part of the world a character inhabits affects a wide variety of setting aspects.

The physical location will determine what types of plants and animals live in the area. It’s hard to have an alligator as a means of disposing of a body in Idaho, but an all-too-real possibilities in coastal Louisiana.

Geography al effects characters’ access to other areas, such as living in an isolated cabin in winter where the plows don’t maintain the roads, or different types of ecosystems. Physical location will also determine what dialect a character uses, though you don’t want to overdo it with regionalisms or colloquialisms in dialogue.

It’s also important to consider whether a geographical location has pronounced or “drug-in” views on politics or religion, a unique culture, or social structures that are not mainstream, and whether or not a character will fall in line with those aspects of their location or not. Researching these setting aspects also offers up great opportunities to make the setting more unique and memorable.

Manmade geography should also be considered when developing a setting’s geographical location. Dams, buildings, and monuments not only change the natural geography but can influence how man’s influence on nature is perceived.

Dig into the climate and geographical location of your setting to see what elements can be used to enhance the setting, characters, and story.

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Setting: Incorporating Time

Time is an important factor in the development of setting because it is linked to so many other aspects of a setting.

Time and Technology

These two elements are intricately connected because technology changes with time and getting the pairing wrong creates anachronisms the reader will most likely notice. Technology can also impact the events of a story, such as being able (or not able) to contact someone easily by cell phone or the ability to find needed information.

When writing in your own time period, or one you have lived through, it’s easier to get the technology right. Any time you venture from familiarity, take the time to thoroughly research what was available in a time period. Not only will this create a more realistic setting, readers can develop respect for your hard work and you will increase your credibility when readers learn new things about a time period.

When writing crime, technology is critical to get right in order to be believable. Don’t just consider when a technology was developed, but also when it became widely available in cities and rural areas and what public perception of specific technology was during that time. DNA profiling became available in the early 80s, but required a much larger blood sample than is needed today and was more limited on what it could determine. It was could also be more hindrance than help in trials because so few members of the public understood what it was and either didn’t understand it or distrusted it even into the 90s.

Time and Society

Time also factors into self-perception and social rules. Self perception is all too often closely linked to how others treat a person. Throughout time, minority groups have been treated with varying degrees of respect and equality. Consider how the experience of a 1950s black woman applying for a professional job would be very different from a white teenage boy in modern times. The different way they experience life impacts how they see themselves and what trials and they will face.

Multiple studies have been conducted on how young Black and white children perceive beauty, goodness, and intelligence based on race. The social environments they grow up in significantly effect how they see themselves and others even today. Create realistic social environments by studying how a particular time period effected those living in it, especially in particularly volatile areas.

Time and Profession

Time period also limits opportunities for certain races, genders, religions, and other groups. Be sure to research historical rules, laws, prejudices, and customs of a time period. Elizabeth Blackwell was a British physician and the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849, however it wasn’t until the 1972 Title IX of the Higher Education Act prohibited federally funded schools from discriminating based on gender.

Time should also be considered in sports, education, and careers. It’s important to know how long it takes to become a lawyer, professional athlete, business mogul, PhD, etc. and plan your timeline and the ages of your characters accordingly. Steer away from “genius” or “prodigy” characters unless absolutely critical to the story. This overused trope doesn’t hold the appeal it once did. If you must have a 22-year-old billionaire, it’s much more realistic that he or she inherited that wealth rather than built it on his or her own.

When writing in any time period other than the present, don’t forget to consider other aspects like fashion trends, politics, generally available knowledge, and other elements that are dependent on time as well.

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Setting: Social Environment

Social environment is an important aspect of setting and should be considered when developing characters who will inhabit that setting.

The social environment a person exists in affects his her thoughts, actions, and decisions. Consider the following aspects and how they will affect characters and story.

Education

While an individual character’s education level is important in developing her dialect and way of speaking, it’s also important to think about the general level of education that exists within the setting. Areas with lower education levels may rely more on superstition, experience, or generational knowledge. Areas with higher education levels will turn toward academic knowledge, research, and expert opinions. Education level can effect choices, options, and modes of problem solving.

Social Structures

Social structures in place within a setting can effect resources available to a character or the community. Settings that lack strong social structures such as access to healthcare or education can be a source of struggle or limit options. When effective and easy to access structures are in place, the setting may provide support and help.

Societal Institutions

Similar to social structures, the presence of absence of social institutions can help or hinder character options and choices. The five basic social institutions are family, economic, religion, education, and state. Consider how the presence of absence of each of these effects how a character exists or moves through a setting.

Social Status/Class

A character’s social status or class will play a part in their worldview and many other aspects. It’s also important to think about how the general social status or class of a setting impacts the overall story. A setting that it predominantly high, low, or middle class will operate by different rules than a setting that is more mixed. If there is a large divide between classes, there is potential for strife between classes and movement between classes can be a source of conflict.

Social Circles

Social circles exist in every setting, but the impact they have on a story of character varies. Consider whether circles are fluid, stagnant, or restrictive within a setting. Whether or not a character belongs to a circle, is always separate or outside a circle, or desires to change circles will effect how they exist in that setting.

Social Solidarity

Linked to the importance of social circles, the solidarity that exists within circles can effect a character or the story arc. A strong group of friends or family gives support and encouragement, and may lead a character into occasional trouble. Friends or family who are flighty or unreliable may turn on a character or leave him stranded when they fail to follow through. Faith in social groups will allow the character to move more confidently in the setting while perpetually questioning how much a character can count on others will make her more hestitant within the setting.

Natural vs. Artificial Environments

The physical type of environment a character exist in will determine what types of experiences he will have, what relationship to surrounding she may experience, and whether the environment is supportive or antagonistic toward his goals. Each type has pluses and minuses. Artificial environments may grant access to advance resources while creating a disconnect from nature. Natural environments can be plentiful and physically invigorating, but they are also unpredictable and unstable.

Deterministic vs. Nurturing environments

Settings can be constructed in a way that pushes a character toward a specific role or outcome, or it can encourage exploration and growth in a variety of directions. Deterministic environments often breed feelings of rebellion and mistrust of authority while nurturing environments act as a resource for discovery and expansion.

Personal Networks

Lastly, the network of resources and support systems available to a character within a setting can have major effects of the story and the way the character exists in the setting. Limited networks offer minimal support, even if it contains one or two strong elements. They are far outweighed by elements that are not supportive or discourage change and growth. Personal networks may include family, friends, work or professional resources, education resources, healthcare resources, and more.

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Setting: Why Setting Matters

Setting is not just a location for characters to interact.

Setting is critical to a story’s success for several reasons:

Setting affects how a story progresses. Location can be a hindrance to or facilitate story progression. If a character is taking a physical journey, setting can be used to created physical obstacles, such as a hot desert with a long stretch of no services or fellow travelers when a vehicle breaks down. It can also provide an environment for success, such as a calm and peaceful park where a character can collect her thoughts after a stressful or traumatic moment.

Setting can also affect a character’s worldview and mindset. When, where, and how we grow up shapes us. Consider the differences in how two characters may think and act when one grew up on an organic farm and volunteered at a no-kill pet shelter and another character grew up on a ranch where animals provided food and income and nature was often seen as a enemy to survival.

Setting also helps to establish the atmosphere of scenes and affects reader perception of events. Picture a character walking down the aisles of a bookstore. How does the experience differ when the shelves and books are nicely arranged, there is plenty of light, and cheery music is playing in the background, compared to if the store is dark and musty with scattered stacks of book, the only sound the character’s footsteps and those of someone following him just out of sight? Details of the setting can make all the difference in how an experience will be perceived, both by the character and the reader.

Setting also affects the characters’ choices and actions, depending on how it impacts the scene or story. If a character has a clear view of escape from a dangerous situation, she will most likely take it. If, however, her view is blocked by other people or objects in the way, the decision will take longer to make because she has to consider multiple options. The possibility of a wrong decision or inaction increases. Also consider how a room filled with people all staring, waiting for an answer will provide more pressure to give in or lie as opposed to a one-on-one meeting in a welcoming and bright office.

Lastly, setting can also act as a character, either as an antagonist, such as in a survival situation, or as a protagonist, such as a garden that provides solace and comfort to an introverted person who fears the unknown.

Carefully consider the details of setting and how it will impact all elements of a story.

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Story Structure: Showing Character Change and Staying on Point

Every scene in a book should have a purpose. Part of that purpose should be to show how a character is progressing through their arc.

Showing Character Change

Every scene should demonstration some form of character change. The change exhibited may be subtle, especially if it is a transition scene or largely informational. When considering how to show how a character is changing, think back to the character arc and what point the character is on the arc at that moment.

The change shown should show development and growth of the character in reference to previous scenes, or show backsliding behavior that may lead toward a crisis. The change shown should be related to what is happening in the scene.

Whatever happens in the scene should have an impact on the character, eliciting change on some level, whether emotional, mental, or behavioral. Change should match the character and the event to keep it realistic. A minor even that creates a major change will feel forced to the reader.

One character may also see an event as not a big deal, while the other sees it as a huge problem, so be sure to consider the character’s personality developed up to that point. The character needs to react and change according to their perceptions.

Staying on Point

Scenes should leave out all the boring and non-important details of the characters’ lives. Life may be filled with the mundane, but scenes should not include details that are not relevant to the scene’s purpose.

If the information, actions, or dialogue don’t pertain to the purpose of the scene, cut it out and reevaluate what is needed to move the scene forward.

Consider starting in the middle of a scene, with action of some kind, and leave out the movements in and out of the scene. This helps curtail unnecessary details that will bore or confuse the reader. Irrelevant details can make the reader focus on the wrong information, thinking it is important to the story or scene.

Only insert backstory when it doesn’t slow the present scene. If a large portion of backstory explanation is needed, structure the scene around that information rather than trying to insert it into scenes with a different purpose. It’s also important only to share relevant backstory information needed for that particular scene to keep from bogging it down.

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Story Structure: Crafting the High Moment and Using Conflict

A strong high moment and relevant conflict are important components of effective scene crafting.

Crafting the High Moment

Scenes within a story should mimic the overall story structure, meaning it should have a beginning, middle, climax/high moment, and an ending.

The high moment of a scene uses elevated emotion, action, or revelation to impact the character(s) in some way. This does not have to be a major event or action scene, but it should be noticeable to the reader and stand out in some way.

The high moment typically comes at or near the end of the scene, with the previous parts of the scene building or leading up to the high moment. It should be something that produces a reaction in the character(s) involved in the scene. The more important the scene is, the more important the reaction should be. Reactions might include, fear or happiness, making a decision or increasing uncertainty, hiding or running, pulling away or moving forward, etc.

The high moment reveals the purpose of the scene. The character should learn something, either about his or her self or the other characters, which then affects their perceptions or choices. It should also lead the reader into the next scene by setting up the next step the character(s) will take after the revelation in the current scene.

Emphasizing Conflict

Every scene needs some form of conflict: internal, external, or both.

The conflict in a scene needs to have meaning, not be pointless arguing or endless internal lamenting. Have a clear reason for the conflict and consider how it will eventually be resolved, even if the resolution won’t take place until later in the story. Focus the conflict no the purpose of the scene to keep it from meandering.

Conflict, in general, should get progressively worse throughout the story. This increases the stakes for the character(s). Keep this in mind while planning individual scenes and make sure there is an overall progression throughout the story. When considering the main conflict, break it down into smaller pieces or steps and plan its progression with particular scenes.

It’s also important to vary the type of conflict in subsequent scenes. Too many action scenes or scenes with external conflict in a row can be exhausting for the reader and not provide enough time to take in information or impacts of the action. Internal conflict slows down the action and gives the reader a chance to process the conflict and information along with the reader. Scenes with mostly internal conflict won’t be as explosive, but should increase the overall tension.

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Story Structure: 3-Act Structure

One of the most commonly taught and used story structures in the 3-Act Structure. In this post I’ll break down each act and what should be in it.

Act 1 – The Beginning

Act one compromises about the first 25% of the story and has three main parts.

  • Introduction: The introduction should establish who the main characters are and what their “normal” life looks like at that point in time.
  • Inciting Incident: The inciting incident presents a situation that will prove to be a catalyst for change and which will set the story in motion. In a romance novel, this is usually the meet-cute.
  • Plot Point 1: This first major plot point will introduce the central conflict and present a call to action for the character. The character(s) then react to the inciting incident and call to action, usually accepting the call and setting themselves on the path of the story and character arcs.

Act 2: The Middle

Act two compromises about the middle 50% of the story and contains the bulk of the plot.

  • Confrontation: During the confrontation, the main character faces the first obstacle to achieving his or her desire or goal. In a romance novel this is often something that will prevent a real relationship or keep the main character’s apart, either physically or emotionally.
  • The midpoint: At the midpoint, the main character faces the central conflict in some way. The realization causes a change in the character. This is often a revelation about the self, information about another character, shocking news, reflection on the main conflict, etc.
  • Rising action: During the rising action, the stakes must rise for the main character, building up to the central conflict he or she must face. This is usually achieved through subplots and new information about the central conflict.
  • The second plot point: This is the highest point of tension. It is a crisis that makes the desired ending seem impossible. This should use high emotion to engage the reader and make them concerned for the character. This MUST be believable enough to make the reader think a happy ending may not be possible. This should be big enough that it can’t be resolved easily.

Act 3: The End

Act three compromises the last 25% of the story and contains the worst moment for the characters as well as the resolution or climax and the final ending.

  • Pre-climax/darkest night: In this blackest moment, the character faces the possibly of not achieving their goal during a final clash with the antagonist and deals with the fallout of the crisis The character may realize a new goal that will help them move past the crisis (often alone).
  • Resolution/Climax: This is the final moments of the main conflict where it is resolved by providing an answer to the main problem/conflict. This is normally a single scene, but may extend to several scenes if the resolution/climax is complicated or involves interactions with multiple characters.The main conflict’s resolution MUST be believable and not a simple misunderstanding. The solution should be real and still have an element of risk. The benefits of taking the risk should outweigh staying safe.
  • Denouement:This final ending fulfills all promises to the reader. Make sure to tie up loose ends, answer questions, underscore the theme, in order to leave the reader satisfied.

There is, of course, room to make changes or try new tactics within a 3-Act story structure, but it is still important to make sure you hit all the main elements in some fashion.

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Story Structure: Overview

This series will talk about how to structure a story that keeps the reader’s attention and tells a story in the best possible way.

The Basics of Story Structure

Exposition/Introduction

This is where you will introduce the characters, establish the setting, and present the primary conflict. All of this generally happens in the first few chapters or the first act. The goal is to orient the reader in the characters’ lives before you begin adding any major conflicts.

This helps the reader connect with the characters so they will be invested in the outcome of their story. If a reader can’t connect with the main character(s), there’s a good chance they will stop reading. The setting should also be relevant and interesting, so they character appears to be existing in a real world (whether realistic or fantastical).

It’s also important to give readers a good idea of what the main problem is that the characters(s) is dealing with so they know what type of story they are reading and what the character(s) must overcome. This sets up the reader’s expectations for the rest of the story.

Rising Action

This section is where you should introduce the primary conflict and set the main storyline in motion. This should follow with the expectations you set up for the reader during the introduction. Succeeding events become more complicated as the story proceeds, creating stumbling blocks, tension, interest, and excitement.

Rising action isn’t a straight line, however, so problems and complications should be interspersed with moments of calm, reflection, or positive movement. The action will continue to rise overall, but with dips along the way. This gives the reader a break and allows time for reflection and thought.

Climax

This is the major turning point of the story. All the problems and complications established during the rising action will come to a head. There is high tension and conflict, and stakes are at their highest. The risk that things might not turn out should feel real to the reader, even if they know deep down that everything will turn out the way they are hoping.

This is often a moment of crisis that leaves the reader wondering what will happen next. If you are writing a romance, the reader expects there will be a happily ever after ending. You likely won’t get the reader to really think a happy ending is out of the question, but the goal is to make them doubt the how of how that happy ending will be reached. This heightens a reader’s investment in the outcome and deepens the connection with the characters.

Falling Action

After the climax, the story begins to calm down and starts working toward a satisfying ending. Characters decide what action to take to resolve conflict. These decisions and actions should be realistic and somewhat surprising. Easy and predictable resolutions tend to fall flat and disappoint readers. Make sure all the loose ends are tied up, explanations are revealed, and the reader learns more about how the conflict is resolved.

Resolution

At this point, the main conflict is resolved and the book ends. The story, however, should have the illusion of continuing on beyond the page. This is true even if the book is a standalone and will not have a continuation. Give the reader a chance to imagine how the characters’ lives play out. This adds to the satisfying quality of the ending.

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Creating memorable Meet-Cutes

One of my favorite meet-cutes is from You’ve Got Mail when the main characters meet Meg Ryan’s bookstore and Tom Hanks is explaining his complicated family situation. It leads so well into Meg Ryan realizing who he is and that his mega chain bookstore is going to put her out of business.

What is a Meet-Cute and how they can best be developed and utilized in romance?

The meet-cute is when a future romantic couple meets for the first time.

The purpose of a meet-cute is to set up a burgeoning relationship.

Meet-cutes often use awkwardness, embarrassment, or hostility and should hint at potential conflicts or barriers to the relationship as well as show the nature of the relationship. The meet-cute should also set the tone for the story.

Forms of meet-cutes include:

Bad first impression: sparks embarrassment, hostility, misunderstanding, etc. This provides immediate conflict, dislike, or intrigue.

The twist: gives one character the upper hand and presents a conflict.

The odd couple: presents differences that could be either complimentary or antagonistic depending on the situation.

While it’s okay to use a tried-and-true meet-cute (i.e. literally bumping into each other), it’s important to make it unique.

Try a unique location (car accident, painting class, etc.)

Have one character do something unexpected (doesn’t help the other up after a fall)

Involve a unique item (onions cascade off a grocery store display and hit the other’s foot)

Force the characters to interact in an unusual way (assigned seating at a movie separates one from a group due to buying tickets too late)

Bring them together during an emergency (fire alarm, witnessing a mugging, etc.)

For a little meet-cute inspiration for future projects, check out these real life stories!

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Crafting scenes that stick with your readers

What is a scene from a book or movie that has stuck with you? Why did it connect with you? For writers, recognizing and evaluating these scenes is a great learning experience!

There are several important elements to crafting an impactful scene:

concept-1868728_1920Purpose

Every scene should have a purpose (advance the plot, reveal something about the character, or provide information about the overall plot). The purpose should be able to be condensed into a one sentence summary. Scenes with no clear purpose are filler and should be cut or rewritten.

Point of View

A scene needs to be told from the most impactful point of view. Usually this is whoever is most impacted by the events of the scene. If emotion isn’t coming through in the scene, reevaluate whose POV it’s being told from. POV is often tied to the purpose of the scene: Who will learn the most? Who will change the most? Who will react more strongly? Who has the most to lose?

The High Moment

Scenes within a story should mimic the overall story structure: beginning, middle, climax, end. The high moment uses elevated emotion, action, or revelation to impact the character(s). The high moment should come at or near the end of the scene and it should be something that produces a reaction. The high moment reveals the purpose of the scene. The character should learn something, either about his or her self or the other characters, that affects their perception or choices.

Emphasizing Conflict

Every scene needs some form of conflict: inner, outer, or both. The conflict needs to have meaning, not be pointless arguing. Conflict should get progressively worse throughout the story, increasing the stakes. Keep this in mind while planning scenes and make sure there is an overall progression. Scenes with mostly inner conflict won’t be as explosive, but should increase the overall tension.

portrait-1634421_1920

Showing Character Development and Change

Every scene should demonstrate some form of character change. The change may be subtle, but it needs to show development and growth of the character, or show backsliding behavior. Whatever happens in the scene should have an impact on the character, eliciting change on some level. Change should match the character and the event. One character may see an event as not a big deal, while the other sees it as a huge problem. They need to react and change according to their perceptions.

Staying on Point

Scenes should leave out all the boring and non-important details. Life may be filled with the mundane, but scenes should not be. If the info, actions, or dialogue doesn’t pertain to the purpose of the scene, cut it. Start in the middle of a scene, with action of some kind, and leave out the movements in and out of the scene. Only insert backstory when it doesn’t slow the present scene.

Strong Beginning and Endings

The beginning and ending should not only be strong, but should be related in some way. This may be theme, symbolism, situational, a specific action or piece of information, etc. Tie the beginning and the end together in a meaningful way that relates to the purpose of the scene.

Adding Details

Find the right balance of details to create a full scene without bogging it down. Descriptive details should be pertinent to the action, help create mood and tone, or accentuate the dialogue. Details should use all relevant senses to create a full picture of the setting, the characters, and the emotion. Details should reveal something. A clenched fist shows anger, fidgeting conveys unease, food and clothing choices set the stage and reveal preferences, etc.

Evaluating Scenes

Whether you’ve watched Dead Poet’s Society or not (if you haven’t, you should!), this scene is a powerful one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j64SctPKmqk

What is one thing about this scene that sticks out to you? What impression does it leave and why?