Category Archives: Ideas & Plotting

Using Setting to Reinforce Plot and Character

Pile of rocksA distant explosion jarred Mike out of bed. He stumbled upright in the dark, groping for boots with bare feet as he reached for his weapon.

Where this scene goes next depends on a lot of things, including who Mike is, his profession, and state of mind. It also depends on what type of story we’re telling and which events will move the plot forward.

It also depends upon setting.

If the setting is 1800s wild west, then the explosion was probably from dynamite in a nearby mine, his boots will probably be cowboy style, and his weapon will be a six-shooter, double-barreled shotgun, or lever-action 30-30. If it’s a future space war, the explosion might be an unexpected encounter with the alien pirate space slugs, his boots an armored hovering model, and his weapon a plasma laser.

If the setting is an episode of My Little Pony, well, I’m not entirely sure where I’d go with that one yet.

That setting will also heavily impact the type of plot we can expect to enjoy. As we’ve explored through some really excellent posts this month, developing an effective, engaging setting is a critical component to building a great story.

Setting also plays an important role in reinforcing plot and character, helping to lock the readers into the world, and suggest certain expectations that we as the author can fulfill, exceed, or flip on their heads.

Set in StoneIn my YA fantasy, Set in Stone, the setting grew in sync with the character, the plot, and the magic system, reinforcing all of them and creating a rich tapestry upon which to tell the tales of Connor and his friends.

The magic system came first – based on plain old rocks. So where better to set the story for a rock-based magic system than a quarry? Placing Connor in a small quarry village up in the mountains helped define the type of characters we’d likely see, as well as their level of education and exposure to the world. With that understanding, I more easily identified directions the plot would likely need to flow in order to educate the characters, challenge them, and threaten their world.

Could I have set the story in a grassland, with the nearest rock a hundred miles away? Sure, but that would have dramatically altered the plot and my characters. I didn’t want the story to be about the quest to find magic. I wanted to explore the fun aspects of the magic system, so I needed lots of rocks. Plus in that world, the quarry becomes an important commodity.

So as you build your stories, begin defining your plot, and start bringing your characters to life, make sure you weave the significance of your setting into all of it. That helps bring the world to life, gives reason and continuity for your characters, their histories, and their choices, and helps tie them into the plot and the world you are building.

For pantsers, when you’re free-writing and exploring the fun world you’re creating, it’s important to understand that as cool aspects of your world and setting become clear, they will impact your characters and your plot. Take a moment to scan back over your story and identify ways to leverage those new aspects to setting. Your story will be stronger for it.

 

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

When Setting Defines (or Defies) Genre

There’s a rule of thumb I’ve referenced in multiple posts here at Fictorians regarding how the kind of universe your story exists within helps define its genre. The rule was brought to my attention via Daniel Abraham in a Clarkesworld post on grimdark fantasy that’s well worth a full read. Mr. Abraham in turn attributes the rule of thumb to Walter Jon Williams, and I’ll quote the relevant passage of the Clarkesworld piece (one of their “Another Word” series of posts) below so that no meaning is lost in the paraphrase:

“In fantasy, the world is essentially benign; in science fiction, the world is essentially amoral; in horror, the world is malefic. Put in terms of illness, fantasy evil is an illness from which the world must recover. In science fiction, evil is a social construct put on a universe that simply is the way it is. In horror, evil is the natural deformity of the world from which there is no way to recover.”

— Daniel Abraham, “Literatures of Despair,” Clarkesworld, 2013

Now, as with any rule of thumb, there are grains of truth to this surrounded by sand-hills (salt-mountains? I’m not clear on what kind of “grains” this metaphor refers to, and so my metaphor is collapsing) of wiggle-room. I’ve spoken at length about how genres tend to bleed together and how often works of fiction fail to fall squarely into one genre or the other.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take this rule of thumb at face value. Close examination of the physical (or metaphysical) underpinnings of what makes your fabricated world tick can help you decide what kind of story you should be telling, and even how that story ought to end. For those authors who have an easier time coming up with fantastically detailed worlds than they do defining a particular story to tell within them (you know who you are), here is one way to narrow down the multitudes of options. It can also be a useful set of guideposts to pantser-style writers who find their story getting away from them in ways they don’t like, as opposed to ways they do.

And that’s not all the rule is good for. Like all rules, it’s good for breaking. Say your goal is deconstructing a popular genre. Well then, perhaps your Tolkienesque epic fantasy story can run afoul of a universe where everything is horrible all the time and the heroes can ultimately lose or the horrific truths forming the foundation of your world can be unexpectedly defeated by the actions of the protagonist, fundamentally restructuring everything that came before. Nothing can be as exhilarating (if done well) or as frustrating (if done poorly) as a twisted expectation.

If you do go this route, I recommend a “frog in boiling water” approach, even though that particular metaphor is untrue (it turns out frogs are not that stupid). Begin with the obvious notes of one genre but quickly introduce a discordant note that points to the genre your story will eventually more into. Gradually shift from one to the other as the plot progresses, so that the transformation feels necessary by the very end. This is particularly effective in shifting from fantasy or science fiction into horror, particularly if you can ramp up the dread while staving off the final realization in the reader until the last possible moment.

In the end, it’s best to think of this rule of thumb, like any rule of thumb, as a tool rather than a boundary. Just remember another saying I’ve become fond of: don’t tear anything down before you understand why it was built in the first place.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

Google Can Take You Anywhere

A few years ago I heard a successful author say that you should have unique setting for most of your novel. Don’t use the same setting too much, especially in a fantasy or sci-fi story where you want to create a continuous sense of wonder for the reader.

As I wrote the first novel I wanted to publish, I took this to heart. Each time I had a new scene, it would be in a different place. It worked for the story, because the characters were on the run much of the time.

The story, New Sight, takes place in the western United States in modern times. Easy for setting, because I didn’t have to make up a bunch of world building rules and such. I remember pulling up Google Maps and charting where I wanted my characters to go. I needed a place of some mystical value, and I Googled that as well. When I had a basic roadmap, I started looking for interesting things in or near the places I wanted to use.

I found a hotel in Colorado that is an old drive-in movie theater. They’ve built it so that you can watch a movie through a huge window in your room while you’re lounging on your bed. I used this in one version of my story, but it didn’t make the final cut. Still, I may use it later for something else. Curiosity piqued? Check it out here.

I found out that Las Vegas has a hidden society of poor people living in the storm drains under the city. Yes please, totally used this. Sort of. Here is the article that my sister sent me after we’d been talking about it.

I found out that a little-known hike in Canyonlands leads to a place called Druid Arch. Some people think it is of mystical importance. Score!

That’s just a few examples. I’d been to Las Vegas, and didn’t end up using the hotel, but I wanted to go to Druid Arch. It took me a few months of getting into better shape, and one failed attempt due to stupid snow in April, but I finally got there.

I’d searched for info on the hike, and had found pictures and descriptions of it. Which gave me a good idea of what to expect. I dragged a few friends along with me. We only got lost once or twice for a few minutes, but in the end made it.

It was so fun seeing the place for myself. Feeling it. Smelling it. Hearing it. I added a few new details to the scenes I’d written there before my final manuscript went out. And, after I got my rights back from my original publisher, I used my own photos on the new cover. With help from an actual artist, of course.

It’s not always practical to visit the places you use in your stories, but at least take the time to Google them. You’ll be amazed at what you find from interesting landmarks to urban legends to people in the sewers.

Home As Setting and Theme

When my debut novel, Sleeper Protocol, was released in 2016, many of my childhood friends, family, and even my teachers commented about my use of “home.” Where I call home is a long way from where I live now, but every time I’m there the feeling of peace is as palpable as wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. I was born and raised in upper east Tennessee in an area called the Tri-Cities. My family actually lived very near a small community known as Midway – it was Midway between Johnson City and Tennessee’s Oldest City, Jonesborough. The Appalachian mountains filled the eastern horizon, running in a roughly southwest to northeast line. It’s a beautiful place.

And I never intended for my story to go there.

As the story of a cloned soldier trying to find his identity unwound from my brain to the keyboard, I initially struggled with “What’s the point?” or even Eric Flint’s famous guidance of “Who gives a $^#@?” I needed something to make the character’s emotional struggle hit home and that’s where the inspiration hit. So, I took my character home. In the third act, he descends Cherokee Mountain, crosses the Nolichucky River, and ends up on a small knoll where a farmhouse once stood. All of those are real places and the knoll is where my family’s homestead still stands. My cousins own “The Farm” as we call it, and it’s wonderful to know that it’s still there and open for my family to visit any time we want. That openness and warmth led me to bringing my character to an very different emotional level. I gave him a sense of place, a sense of a home that he’d once had and was very different than the future one, but a place he could identify with fully and embrace his identity. Once I’d opened that door, I proceeded to move him further along the path by having him stand over his own gravesite in the Mountain Home National Cemetery.

The journey to find his “home” was really the key to unlocking his identity. My first ideas to bring him through familiar territory to help with my description and emotional resonance gave way to something else entirely: a theme I’d never intended. Our sense of home is a large part pf our identity. Even our home nation, or state, or municipality is much more than a common bond to our neighbors. We identify ourselves to that place forever. No matter where I go, when I am asked where I’m from I always say that I’m from Tennessee and just happen to live elsewhere.

My point is this – write about your home or wherever you consider your home to be. Pull that emotion and identity into your own writing. Your voice will improve, your characters will seem more grounded and real, and your readers – especially those who claim the same sense of home – will keep asking for more. When you’re not writing about your home? Put that same warmth and emotion into the characters who are there. It makes a difference to the story and to your characters.