Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Why Setting and Scenery Are Not Synonymous

So last time we talked about why world-building (or setting) is important and we touched on why it’s important to stick to the rules once the narrative has set them up.

This is the second part of setting and its purpose in life, and I’m making it a separate post all on its own because it’s not a problem that normally gets as far as published books or theatrically released films, mostly I think because someone usually spots the obvious issue and cans the proposal. However, the internet in all its unfiltered glory shows that this is something of a problem when people start writing, and from my own experience I know how easy it is to fall into this heffalump-trap, so we’re going to tackle it now.

Ready? OK.

It doesn’t matter how intricate and shiny and wonderful your world/planet/alternative-reality is; if there’s no story to happen in it, no one is interested.

There, I said it.

And I felt like I ought to discuss this now, because most of this series is (probably) going to be about how important it was/is to me to build my world as thoroughly as I can before really getting stuck into writing. And if, like me, you love fantasy worlds, and books about totally alien planets and the possibilities and the creativity and you collect pictures and make collages to capture the aesthetic of certain places and whatnot, then you’ll absolutely understand how tempting it is to try and cram every single tiny detail of this into your novel/film script because you’ve worked so hard on it, and it’s so intricate and awesome and you just want to share it with the world!

And here’s why you have to curb that instinct. No one else is going to care.

Ch.3 Why Setting and Scenery are not Synonymous

OK, so that’s not totally true; people care very deeply about what Hogwarts looks like, and what the uniforms look like (and why the hats disappeared after book 1?) People really care about Middle Earth and the Federation and the Empire, and what does the Enterprise floorplan look like? How do you ask for second-helping of dinner in Romulan and such (or in Kirk’s case, I imagine he’s had to learn how to say ‘Do you happen to have a spare shirt?’ in every language known to the Federation…)

So yes, people could care as deeply about every detail as you do, but the reason people even remember what Middle Earth even is, the reason it ever mattered to them at all, is because it comes attached to this brilliant story about bravery and friendship and Good Vs Evil and all that fun stuff that we’ve always loved to tell stories about.

But no one was ever going to learn Quenya if Tolkien just wrote books about this world he’d made up to fit this language he wrote and how it has awesome buildings and dwarves and elves, and then never had them do anything. Imagine for a second reading the Lord of the Rings, but without the Fellowship actually going off to destroy the One Ring. This is not a good image, is it?

As we discussed last time, Setting supports Plot. It can also in and of itself actually serve the plot and drive it forward just as much as the characters do. The Plot is the bit that everyone remembers (hopefully) but your setting is not just the backdrop against which the plot happens; it is a fully-integrated part of the story. It is not allowed to just sit there and look pretty. It has to do something.

There’s a few ways setting can end up in a narrative, but they generally fall into three main groups:

Scenario 1 – Pointless Detail. More kindly called ‘Giving Flavour’. Imagine that you read an account of a fourteen year-old’s bedroom; what posters are on the walls, what clothes are in the wardrobe, what the ragged old teddy bear looks like, what pattern the curtains are, what colour the carpet and walls are… You get the idea.

Are you interested yet? No. You do not care about this girl’s bedroom even a little, do you? If you as a writer have told me in great detail about this bedroom, but it would have no effect whatsoever if the curtains were different, or the furniture was changed or even gone entirely – why did you tell me about them? If the fact that this girl has held on to this ratty old teddy bear serves no purpose at all, what is that detail doing in your novel?

Now yes, it’s fun to leave little details in your setting which does not get explained or commented on. No one likes being spoon-fed the deep inner meaning of everything. Leave the reader something to work out all on their own, by all means. But that only works if there was a reason that you – yes, you! The writer! – knew why you included it. You needed to be saying something, even if you didn’t highlight it in neon lights. Which brings us nicely on to:

Scenario 2 – Character Study. Otherwise known as; when Setting Supports Character. Imagine, again, that you read an account about a fourteen year-old girl’s bedroom, and you are told, either outright or by implication, that you are never going to meet this girl in-person and must come up with a picture of this girl from what her bedroom looks like. What does she like, what’s stuffed and screwed into a ball at the back of her wardrobe signifying that she doesn’t like it, what has she tucked away carefully out of sight suggesting that it’s secret and important to her, what does she take for granted and not minded that it has been damanged, what has she hung on to for years?

OK, you’re a bit interested now, aren’t you? There’s now a point to this detailed description of what this girl’s bedroom looks like. The setting is serving a purpose, in this case to introduce a character the audience has not seen, and will not meet.

Still, at the end of the day, you’re still stuck looking at this room for someone you have not met and never will, so not too interested, are you? It’s more of a character-study than a plot going on here, and there’s definitely artistic merit with character-studies, but they just don’t get remembered and discussed the way that stories with plots and struggles and stakes get remembered.

Scenario 3 – Setting Supports Plot. The audience is told that a fourteen year-old girl has gone missing and that the clues to this can be found in her bedroom. You get to see what it is like, can make some deductions of your own and get a bit of a picture of her. Then you might see the rest of the house. Is it totally different from her room? Are they very similar on first glance, but then you remember all those things tucked away or treated with disdain? Perhaps the girl doesn’t fit in as well as you might have assumed. Then you meet her family members and her friends and realise that the girl they are describing is utterly different to the girl you have in your mind’s eye. Are they wrong about her? Are you? Are there differing accounts to such an extent that it seems that no one knows this girl very well? Does everyone see a different side of her? Have you seen the ‘real her’, or do you also have a false impression? What is true and false and do you have anything reliable to shed light on this girl’s disappearance?

You’re interested now, aren’t you? We’re still mostly stuck looking at a fourteen year-old girl’s bedroom, but now it has meaning and is integral to the plot. This is why you were shown the room! It’s a setting, but it’s also a plot-point! It is driving the plot forward, and giving you vital information without which the plot will not make sense. This isn’t detail for detail’s sake, you needed to know this.

So yes, build your world as big and intricate as you like (I certainly will!) but remember that what makes the final cut – what jumps over the cutting scissors and is presented to your audience should always, always be the details the audience needs to engage fully and completely with the story you are actually telling them. If the legendary sword never makes an appearance, don’t tell me the legend that goes with it. If the old man int he tavern contributes nothing at all to the scene or the story as a whole, why have I been presented with two pages about him?

Telling an audience a narrative is an act of trust between the writer and the reader; you’re asking them to willingly follow you and promising that there will be a good payoff. Giving them needless information dilutes everything you really needed them to hang on to, and betrays that trust; there was no payoff. There was no point to being told a Thing.

And remember, always remember, what happened to the writer who wrote 200 pages about a forest kingdom and its inner-workings, and its peoples without a character-arch or struggle and resolution or anything else to capture the readers’ interest or emotions?

The publisher and readers got bored and no one read past the second chapter.

Missed the rest of this series? Catch up by following the link here.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

World-Building and Why It Really Does Matter

For anyone joining me here having skipped the Introduction to the Chronicles in Creation; I start this, the most theory-driven part of the series, with the following disclaimer – Please do not mistake me for a Qualified Person who Knows Things.

This and its following two sections are based on my own writing ethos built up over years of reading books, watching film and tv, and writing… well, just generally writing everything I wanted to try out. Like anyone who is self-taught in an area, I have done lots of research, then thought long and hard about why some things work for me and others don’t.

You may feel that what I am about to outline as the theory under-pinning my world-building is flawed or just out-right wrong. You may find that it doesn’t work for you at all. That’s totally fine!

Now I swore when I started this series that I wasn’t going to go on and on into long discussions about what my philosophy on writing was. On the other hand, if you are interested enough to read this series, then I’m sorry but it probably won’t make sense without going through a few basics, the gravel at the bottom of my foundation trenches, one might say, first.

Ch.2 World-Building and Why It Matters - small

So, when I told my friends (who have very patiently been living with me and my stories for far longer than the internet has, poor souls) that I was writing this blog series, the first response that came up several times was, ‘No, don’t give away your plot! You can’t spoiler your novel before you write it!’

Or words to that effect.

Also, can we get a ruling on whether ‘to spoiler’ has become a verb yet?

Now of course world-building (or setting as we’re calling it from now on for ease) and plot have plenty to do with each other but they are also not interchangeable. I know that the plot is the part that people remember and talk about first, but I can see from listening and reading about audiences’ responses to films and books that sometimes it’s easy to mistake setting-based issues for plot-based ones. You know that plot you’ve seen which just doesn’t seem to fit together properly as you’re experiencing it? You just couldn’t buy into it, and all you could see where the parts that didn’t fit together correctly, not the things that legitimately worked?

The good news is that the problem might not have been the plot at all. At least half the time, it’s got a lot to do with having the wrong setting.

The Holy Trinity of Narrative

So before I dive right into deep concerns about what kind of plants can become dryads and such, I wanted to talk a little about why I think setting is the neglected child in the narrative family and why we need to love it more and understand its purpose in the world (and why if you get it wrong it can ruin your plot by stealth as revenge.)

Next time, we’ll look at the flip-side; why setting and plot are not the same, and why you should not try to use your super-awesome setting as a plot.

Again, I promise you faithfully we are not going to do theory stuff too often in this series, and I fully acknowledge my lack of formal teaching and that these theories are entirely based on my own ideas and empirical evidence. Do not take them too seriously, ok?

Narrative Trinity

So here we introduce The Holy Trinity of Narrative; Plot, Characters and Setting. Cutting things right down to their very basics:

The Plot

The Plot is the reason we are here, why we are reading the story or watching the film. Everything else in the work needs to support it and push it forwards. If the other two start to conflict outright with the plot or fight to take the attention away from the plot, the whole thing falls apart (you know that book where all the characters are way more interesting than the plot they were following? Or that movie that everyone agrees looked fantastic but absolutely everything else about it was terrible?).

The Characters

The Characters are why we care about the plot. Their motivations drive it, their struggles are what it needs to overcome for us to feel satisfied by it, and the lessons they learn are what we relate to. Movies especially tend to suffer from weak characters pulled around by the plot, instead of having strong(er) characters pushing the plot forwards with their developed and relevant motivations. ‘Because the plot says so’ is a quick way to get through your first draft, not the final product meant to produce a memorable and worthwhile story. I absolutely cannot stress enough that the audience only cares if the characters care. That is the only way you can have any remote sense of tension in your narrative at all. We don’t have to agree with them, we just have to know that the characters really want (or don’t want) the things that the plot needs them to achieve (or avoid).

NB: If any of you are interested, we’ll come back to this when discussing Plot Contrivances, ok? Let me know in the comments.

The Setting

Setting is often thought of as the backdrop against which all of this happens and therefore can be seen as the least important of the three. I personally would argue that setting is unimportant like seasoning your food is unimportant – you could eat food with no seasoning and it would be totally edible and whatnot, but something would be notably missing.

In the same way, you can absolutely have a story with a good plot and relatable characters and no real, concrete mention of any setting whatsoever and it could potentially work, but it’s still not going to have the depth, interest and/or believability as a tale where there is some kind of setting established.

It doesn’t even take very much; here’s a couple of quick examples:

  1. ‘Once upon a time, far, far away, there lived a boy.’
  2. ‘Once upon a time, so long ago that water ran up hill instead of down, and so far away that the clouds touch the sea, and the trees prop the sky up, there lived a boy.’
  3. ‘In 1973, in New York City, there lived a boy.’

So the first one is a traditional way to give your story a setting; it’s taking place in a fairy-tale land of make-believe and need not be taken even a little seriously. Sadly it’s also not very interesting and makes clear that the setting (or world) of this story is in no way interesting to the narrator or the audience. It’s taking place in the land of Who Knows, Who Cares? This is a hold-over from the days when stories were told as a way of teaching a lesson. The story and the characters are not the important parts, the lesson is the only important thing for people to remember. Which is all well and good, but story-telling has moved on. This method is also a last-survivor from the times of an almost-exclusively oral story-telling tradition in which the rules are as totally different as those between, say, an opera and a film, and correspondingly some things simply do not translate.

The second one actually added a sense of there being a world that this story is taking place in; there’s a quantification for how long ago (apparently so long ago, we hadn’t invented gravity yet) and so far away that we’ve hit the edge of the metaphorical map and the sky is joining up with the horizon. It’s also setting up the world for the reader to show that the narrator isn’t going to take themselves too seriously here, that there is some form of humour inherent in the narrative and that the normal rules of nature don’t apply with its upwards-flowing rivers and sky-propping trees. So if we also meet a talking horse or a band of singing and dancing chrysanthemums, well, we’re not going to question it. The narrator has told us that anything is possible and logic can be firmly checked in at the door and don’t question this.

And the final one is the most specific; this story apparently is taking place in this world, in the recent past, and is presumably supposed to have actually happened. The upside is that such specific details mean that the audience is more likely to place actual credence in the story, treat it like it’s real and whatnot. The downside is that the narrator now cannot make up the rules on a whim; they have established that this is a real point in time, in a real place and if they now wish to throw in a stampede of wingéd unicorns, they are going to have to justify that nonsense and fast. Everyone knows unicorns don’t have wings!

Place a narrative in the wrong setting and the entire plot can fall apart in seconds. Don’t believe me?

The film Titanic (yes, I know, obvious example but work with me) is set in 1912, the year of the ship’s maiden voyage. Therefore the technological restriction need no explanation, we’re not expecting anyone on-board to whip out a mobile phone and call for help, for example; this does not need to be justified. Nor are we all that surprised to hear that a well-dressed white woman is being married off against her wishes by her father to a rich guy. This is 1912, women do not have the vote, or independent income and their fathers rule their lives until marriage when this role is taken over by their husbands (there were exceptions, yes I know but this is movie-world where we deal in trends not outliers). James Cameron did not need to justify this beyond, ‘We need the money, daughter’ and the audience goes with it.

Now contrast that to trying to sink a ship with hundreds of people on-board in 2016. Communications technology is much better, as are the navigation devices which can detect (among other things) icebergs, and if the romantic subplot opens with a man marrying his daughter to some rich douchebag for money just because it’s his right to do so? Yeah, nothing about that set-up is believable at all. The audience is going to have some really big questions and no small amount of scepticism which will pull them right out of the story, make them question everything else about it, and ruin the whole thing.

So the moral of the story is this; love your setting and give it the thought it deserves, or its revenge will come in the night and devour all that was good and precious in your work!

Missed Chapter 1 in this series? Go here to catch up.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

In Which We Are Introduced

This is not a ‘How To’ guide.

Sorry, had to get that one out there.

This blog series is not intended to show you How Things Ought to be Done in the world of writing, with all the implications that I Know Things or feel that myself and the way I do things are Right.

This is my journey into writing my own stories, and the trials and errors that get me there.

Ch.1 In Which We Are Introduced

Two years ago, I decided to stop allowing myself to be stalked by characters I’d made up in my head and started to come up with some ‘proper’ stories for them to feature in. They were very grateful, I’m sure.

But by then I was working full-time, and had neither the time or the money to go and do a proper Creative Writing course and had to make do with lots of books and that great source of knowledge, nonsense and cat videos – the Internet. And there was a lot of helpful advice (like, seriously. A lot. I will try and throw in the links to particularly helpful ones as we go through this), some utterly unhelpful stuff that made everything sound both incredibly easy and utterly mystifying, and made me think I should give up this writing thing to other people with much more talent and skills and who actually knew what they were doing.

There were a lot of false starts. Times when I mistook having a whole set of sub-plots as having one interesting plot. Times when I realised that not one single main character had any decent motivations to be engaged in the plot, and were being pushed around by the motivations of minor characters. Times when I was more interested in what one palace looked like than the people who lived in it and their actions…

I’m glad I stuck to it though and have continued to scribble in any notebook so unwise as to wander into my presence.  This blog is essentially the next notebook (one with the ability to edit though, which makes it much better) and when I started to think about what I wanted to write about I promised myself something, which I am fulfilling here.

A couple of years ago I went to see Peter Pan in Stratford-Upon-Avon (very kind Christmas present, interesting re-interpretation of the book, problematic as bits were) and at one point Wendy is talking to a pirate-boy who really needs not to be on that pirate ship at all, and she says that in all her stories the characters always know where they are going and what they are doing and what is she doing wrong because she doesn’t know everything? And the pirate-boy points out that all of these stories are being told by people after the end of the story. ‘They’re cheating’, he says because they can now tidy-up the narrative and take away all those bits where they had no idea what they were doing and tada! The whole story makes much more sense and they always know what to do because the utter confusion has been taken out, but at the time they had no idea of what to do or where to go either.

I don’t think people cleaning up their story-telling after the Happily Ever After is cheating exactly, but I will acknowledge that this moment was what pulled me through when I thought that I could never put together a decent plot that didn’t peter out in the second act; when I thought I’d never get a handle on my fantasy world; when my characters wouldn’t speak to me anymore and how does this Writing Thing even work anyway?

Because as far as I can tell, all writers have these problems as they get started. They all have abandoned plot threads to edit out, and places they created to perfection and then the story just never went there, and so we, the reader, never see them. In an early draft of the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien reportedly had cast Strider as another hobbit and called him ‘Trotter’.

Yes, really.

I too see why this did not make it through into the final draft. Good choice there, Tolkien.

So the result of all that is this blog-series. It is, as I have said, in no way a ‘How To’ and instead is essentially an account of the way I build the fantasy world my novel takes place in.

This is largely happening in real time; not a cleaned-up account put together after it’s all done from what ideas made it through to the end, or the most interesting discarded ideas. If I have to change my mind about something, you’ll see it. If I realise I’m an idiot and have put the same city in two different locations, you’ll probably find out when I do.

I have maps to draw; entire lands and people to decide the look of, and I need to really nail down a whole variety of different cultures and backstories and histories; you name it, we’re going there. We’ll be looking at why I find certain characters and plot themes compelling to me personally and therefore why I will or will not be using them. I’ll be looking at where I draw inspiration from, why I might really like something but feel that I can’t draw from it, when the plot informs the world-building and when the world I’ve built informs the plot.

I repeat my opening thesis here: I am not saying that I am right. I am (hopefully) setting out how and why I make some decisions and not others, and what the end results of all those decisions adds up to.

I hope it’s going to be entertaining, but mostly what I hope this series will be is helpful and encouraging to those of you who are right now trying to build your own worlds, your own plots and characters and are trying to make things make sense. You are not alone, and I promise that no one knows how to do everything right from the start.

Rome was not built in a day, and neither was Gondor, or Hogwarts, or the Starship Enterprise (fine well-endowed lady that she is) and for those same reasons, the development of my world will take a while to put together too.

So come with me, won’t you, as we make some hard decisions, some fun ones and throw some terrible ideas far, far out of the internet’s window…