Last week, I had the pleasure of escaping reality and hiding away at the When Words Count Retreat in Rochester, Vermont. For an entire week I stopped answering emails, texts, and phone calls. I minimized my social media interactions and focused wholly on my novel. You know, the one that I have been struggling to kick off for about a year now.
What I love about When Words Count was that from the moment I stepped inside the door, the spirit of famous authors surrounded me. Various pictures of authors and book covers decorate the retreat’s walls and enhance the old farmhouse charm. It is a bibliophile’s (and writer’s) heaven. Each room within the retreat is themed after an American author. I had the pleasure of staying in the Flannery O’Connor room, where each night I fell asleep under a gorgeous portrait of one of the most prolific short story author that has ever existed. Before the sweet embrace of REM overtook my slumber, I said a short sweet prayer to Ms. O’Connor to influence my dreams and guide my writing hand.
Outlining. It was the one thing that always annoyed me about writing. I absolutely hated it. I remember the long ago days when I was studying to be a Marine Biologist, each every research paper that I wrote had to have scientific outline. Each outline followed the same mundane rules of proper format, proper heading, and et cetera. In the classes where the professor never checked the outline before the paper was handed in, the outline would be written after my research paper was complete so as to use the final paper as the defining guide. For the classes where the outline was mandatory to hand before the paper was due, I would find myself in a place of pure and utter hell where I would languish long nights away with my head in my hands sobbing about how to structure some asinine outline.
Outlines annoyed me. I found them tedious and mundane. As a professional in Quality Assurance and Regulatory Control, you would think I would revel in the worlds of organized outlines… but you are dead wrong.
I found them completely pointless and detractors from the completion of the finished product. I never saw the benefit of them. So when I turned to creative writing, I nixed them. Outlining was one and only “brainstorming” tool that I never utilized with short story writing. I brainstormed by drawing diagrams, write down a couple notes, and then start banging at the keys, allowing the story just to flow on the paper.
The days of outlining were dead, and since graduating college I never wrote another one… until last night.
One of the most important elements of a story is the setting. The setting answers the following questions for the reader:
Where is the story taking place?
What day is it?
What time of day / night is it?
What is the weather like?
et cetera, et cetera
In other words, the setting details the “historical” moment in time and place your story is established. The setting ties tightly together and supports all other story elements, such as plot, character, and theme.
The catalysts for settings are infinite. Some milieus that are most common in literature are:
Mythical / Fantasy World
Simulated / Virtual Reality
The element of setting allows the reader to “picture” the story within his or her mind. In defining your story’s setting, there are a few points to remember:
1. Utilize the Senses – Use all 5 human senses when writing a setting
Keep in mind that as humans, we experience the world with all of our senses
Do not limit the description of a setting just to sight
Evoke the senses of taste, touch, smell, and hearing
Experiment with a sixth sense, such as a gut-feeling or intuition, for your character to experience in regard to the setting
2. Don’t tell; Describe – Describe the setting using the 5 (or 6) senses
Give your reader descriptions of the setting – don’t tell them what they should be imagining
Allow your reader to use his or her own imagination to experience the setting in his or her mind
3. Don’t Ramble – Be concise with your writing
Be concise with your words
Get directly to the point with enough description that the reader can envision the setting within a second or two
If you feel like your descriptions are droning on and on… they are
Which leads me to….
4. Give enough detail, but don’t go overboard
As much as I love Faulkner, he tends to go on and on with his descriptions that my brain shuts down. Its description overload!
Too many details will kill a reader with boredom or a fried brain – whichever comes first
Again, just be concise: use as few of words as needed to get your point across
Good settings make or break a story. Think of settings as the foundation of the book in which all of the elements are built upon. If you do not have a good setting, the other pieces of your story will crumble from the lack of a supporting base. All your story bits will be left to float around in an empty space because they are not solidly rooted in a firm setting. Your reader will lose focus and then interest because your story is not tight and its elements are not stable.
However, if you are into Sci-fi maybe you want your elements to be floating unrestrained through space… hmm…some food for thought.
I wonder what floating bits of story elements floating through space looks like?