Setting the Scene

By now you’ve probably done extensive work on most, if not all, of your story’s characters. And even if you haven’t filled in every section of whatever character sketch template you decided to use, that’s okay. You can, and should, continue to work on character as ideas come. This may mean adding new information you hadn’t thought of before as other elements of your story, such as plot and setting, come together, or it may mean deleting certain ideas that no longer seem valid. Just last night I finished a character sketch for a pivotal character, the red herring, that I hadn’t been able to work on before without some research on setting.

Here’s what I mean: I decided my red herring, tentatively named Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy, would work in the meat-packing district in the East End of London. I didn’t know if there was a meat-packing district there, so I had to do some research on setting. Come to find out, the closest thing to one is the Smithfield Market where a variety of butchers sell their goods.

This couldn’t be more perfect because, in the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, there had been a suspect named “Leather Apron” and a theory that the killer could have been a butcher because of the way the victims’ organs had been removed.

So now that Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy works for one of the butcheries, his job might take him to the English countryside where the farms are and could place him in the village during the time of the murders. Without knowing this information on setting, I would never have been able to link my character to both the story I am creating and the original historical event I am using for inspiration.

In fact, every element of storytelling will inform others and generate new ideas you hadn’t been able to conceive before. Let this process happen naturally. Nothing creative can be set in stone.

Coincidentally, the second phase of Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days process is setting.

Setting is not just time and place. It encompasses landscape, climate, political/religious/social milieu, clothing style, language, food choices, employment opportunities, architecture, cultural values, behavioural norms, laws and the justice system, education, and most of all–secrets. You get the picture!

Unless you’re concocting a fantasy world where you are in complete control of all these categories, or you’re basing your story on a setting where you have spent significant time, like your childhood hometown, you’ll probably have to do some research. Obviously, taking a trip to desired setting will give you firsthand information, including atmosphere (mood), textures, smells, sounds, etc., but if that’s not possible you may have to resort to books, magazines, maps, travel guides, and Internet searches. Even better if you know someone who has been to your desired setting. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions and ask for any photos they may have. This will help create at least some authenticity. No one wants to read a story that takes place where s/he lives and find blatant errors like setting a ghetto housing project on St. Germaine Street when in reality it’s the swankiest neighborhood in the city.

My favorite way to research setting is through images. I am a visual learner and have files of images on settings for all my story ideas. From those images, I can make general assumptions about what things feel like, sound like, smell like based on similar places I’ve been. Here are some of the images I’ve collected for this project.

East End Pub

East End Pub

North Yorkshire moors 

Dorm room windows

Dorm room windows

Architecture

Architecture

Quaint village street

Quaint village street

 

 

 

 

School Dining Room

School Dining Room

Village alley

Village alley

Dartmoor National Park

Dartmoor National Park

Whitechapel 1888

Whitechapel 1888

Drive to campus

Drive to campus

 

 

 

 

 

It also helps to read other books that take place in your desired setting as long as the author is credible. Think James Joyce writing about Dublin. And then there is National Geographic, Rick Steves’ travelogues, B&N discount book section in which I’ve found no less than 10 huge coffee table books on the history of ancient Egypt, newspaper articles, etc. Reading as much non-fiction about your desired setting can give you valuable information that just may play a role in your story. And even if it doesn’t, whoever said knowledge was a waste of time?

Some categories to include in your general setting sketch are Time (Day, Year, Season, etc.), Location (City, State, Country, Region, etc.), and Language (Dialect, Vernacular). Other categories to consider depending on the genre of story you’re writing are Dominant Religion and Attitude, Cultural Customs, Political Climate/Government, and Dominant Social Class and Attitudes.

Now that you’ve got a feel and description for your general setting, it’s time to work on specific settings your characters will inhabit, such as their homes, places of business, schools, restaurants/bars, cars, etc. This should require little effort if you’ve done some research on your general setting. For example, you wouldn’t describe your protagonist’s home as being American Colonial style if he lives in southern California; however, you might describe it as being in Mediterranean or Spanish style. Likewise, you probably wouldn’t see too many convertibles in Alaska in winter but might see a lot of 4WD vehicles with plows on them.

Depending on what point of view you’re writing from (whether first-person, third-person omniscient, or multiple third-person limited), you’ll want to create a list of each specific settings your character(s) will inhabit during the course of your story. For instance, I am writing from a first-person POV, so my list will only include settings my protagonist will inhabit: private school grounds/quad, dorm room, common room, dining room, school newspaper office, classroom, village streets, village pub, moorland path, police station, and killer’s lair. I’m using some of the images above as inspiration only.

My protagonist’s roommate’s style is Bohemian gypsy/eclectic packrat, and I used the image below as inspiration for her dorm room decor.

Bettina's style

Bettina’s style

Then wrote this description:

It was like walking into a bohemian palace. Every wall covered in textured fabrics, woven throw rugs scattered on the hardwood floor, and Bettina’s bed enshrouded in what looked like a canopy of colored mosquito netting. In the fireplace, a lighted candelabra blazed and dripped wax on the hearth inches away from a pile of overstuffed pillows.

So this week, channel your inner fashion designer/set decorator, gather as many images as you can, and write sketches of what each specific setting might look like. You can write either brief notes to yourself and worry about the exact wording later, or you can write actual narrative as I did above and then copy/paste into your draft. If you choose to do the latter, remember that your description may well indeed change from this brainstorming phase to the actual drafting phase, so it’s best not to marry yourself to anything yet. Just remember to go for descriptions of all five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.

Setting is one of my absolute favorite things to research and write about because a few well-placed descriptions can conjure up any desired atmosphere and make your reader feel whatever you want. For instance, the setting above not only reflects the character who resides there, it becomes a magical, fantastical place where the characters can escape from the harsh reality of young murdered homeless, drug-addled women and where legends of jackals are learned. Here, it’s okay to think outside the box. In a sterile police station, it would be a different story.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next blog on plot!

 

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Conan the Barbarian–From a Writer’s Perspective

I must admit I was a bit scared to view this movie after approximately 27 years. When it was popular in the 80s, I must have watched it a thousand times because I was super into anything Dungeons & Dragons like, and I never missed a showing of it on TV (and I swear it was on every Saturday afternoon). The reason I was so scared was because I had recently watched Red Sonja on Netflix, another Dino de Laurentiis film from the era that I had once loved, and it was so horrible I was embarrassed for myself for once liking it.

However, I was pleasantly surprised with Conan, and it is still a movie that can live up to today’s standards (mostly). In fact, as far as storytelling goes, it far surpasses a lot of the crap movies that are out there now.

First, Conan the Barbarian (oh, did I mention this is the Arnold Schwarzenegger version) is an epic tale and embodies most of the conventions we assimilate with epic literature: it’s written in a formal style on a serious subject whose main character or protagonist is of a quasi-divine nature. The hero’s actions often determine the fate of a nation and involve super-human deeds and battles with supernatural beings. There is also an element of ceremony or ritual, and a vast setting that encompasses lots of travel.

Aside from just being a great story all around, Conan is a master of showing character through action. By this I don’t mean sword fights because, let’s face it, the fight choreography is a little lame by today standards. Rather, I mean we see the true nature of Conan through his actions and not through dialogue. He actually doesn’t speak much at all and has the least amount of dialogue of any of the characters. But we are still able to see his struggle with his internal need and his desire for the external goal by small actions.

A perfect example of this is when Valeria begs him to forget about saving King Osric’s daughter from Thulsa Doom and take the jewels and love they have at the moment and run away. Without speaking, Conan embraces Valeria back in a sort-of agreement but stares at Thulsa Doom’s talisman over her shoulder, which represents his desire to avenge his family’s death. The next morning, Valeria wakes up alone.

Any screenwriter of any genre would do well to study this movie for character’s actions/reactions as well as a lesson in using dialogue sparingly to convey only the most important information.

Truly, this is an epic movie.

Pre Frenzy Week 3- We Got the Beat

By now you’ve done some work on your characters and found out what makes them tick. Hopefully you’ve discovered their major character flaw through listening to their back story. You’ve figured out what it is they need most in life even if they haven’t figured it out yet. You’ve also come up with a situation, a quest so to speak, to help them get what they want. After all, that’s what storytelling is all about–creating a situation that forces your protagonist to get over himself and live a better life. (Yes, even in tragedy and death the protagonist grows.)

Last week’s exercise was a sort of fill in the blanks of the ten elements of screenwriting. Here’s an example of what yours might look like:

1. Back Story— Rumer’s father, an assassin for SI:7, is accused of treason against the King of Stormwind and executed in front of her and her sister, Whisperra. While trying to help Rumer escape their father’s murderers, Whisperra is kidnapped, and Rumer is left to fend for herself. Growing up alone and despised for her family name, Rumer takes to drinking and refuses to form close relationships with anyone except her giant saber mount and companion. She travels Azeroth searching for her sister.

2. Internal Need–to trust and open herself up to others without fear of abandonment; to allow others to help her.

3. Inciting Incident–While chasing yet another lead on her sister’s whereabouts, she learns her father’s charge of treason could have been part of a larger conspiracy against the entire Stormwind Alliance.

4. External Goal–to stop the murder of King Varian Wrynn of Stormwind.

5. Preparation–She infiltrates SI:7 to confront Master Mathias Shaw, who supposedly ordered her father’s execution. She gathers a group of would-be heroes, a healer, a hunter, a magic user, and a warrior, to raid the conspirators’ stronghold and rescue her sister. She devises a strategy for stopping the assassination attempt on King Wrynn.

6.Opposition–Death Knight Malthrassus, advisor to the king and head of covert operation within the Empire to destroy the Alliance. (By the way, it’s important to do just as much character work on your antagonist as well to discover his/her character flaw, internal need, and external goal. You might want to look for something in his/her back story to create sympathy. Antagonists need not be wholly evil, just as protagonists should not be perfect.)

7. Self-Revelation–After rescuing her sister, Rumer knows that together they can clear their father’s name and stop Malthrassus from destroying the Empire.

8. Obsession–Dark Moment: Whisperra is mortally wounded during the escape, and Rumer is left alone once again. New Stimulus: She will avenge her sister’s death by asking her companions for help.

9. Battle–While her friends and SI:7 armies come to her aid, ultimately she must fight Malthrassus alone before he assassinates King Wrynn.

10. Resolution–Rumer and her merry band of heroes are honored by the King of Stormwind. Whisperra’s life is commemorated in a statue. Their father’s name is cleared. The leader of SI:7 offers her a position as his second-in-command.

…or some reasonable facsimile.

So while you were exploring the elements as they pertain to your own story, you probably started getting ideas for scenes. Great! Now it’s time to connect the dots and really begin to plot out your script by creating a beat sheet or step outline.

Sometimes you’ll see the word “beat” written within a script. This generally indicates a moment of pause for dramatic effect before a reaction or response. As writers, we don’t want to dictate every action a character will make–that’s the actor’s job–but there may be a specific place where we want to make sure the change of action/reaction isn’t missed.

A beat is also an exchange of behavior in action or reaction. Beat by beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene. This will be discussed more next week when we work on subtext, but for now think of beat as the motivations behind each character’s actions or dialogue: to beg, to condone, to scorn, etc.

For our purposes this week, a beat sheet (it’s very hard not to write beet sheet or beat sheat) is a one or two-sentence statement that simply and clearly describes what happens in each scene. It can also be called a step-outline in which you number each scene, describing not only what happens in it, but how it builds and then turns again. Remember, each scene should attempt to answer a question as well as pose a new one. In this sense, you can also think of each scene as its own little cliffhanger because what happens in one scene should naturally move the story forward to the next one.

As we begin to plot out our story based on the revelations we’ve made on our characters, their actions and reactions, we also begin to think about structure. The most common structure you’ll probably be working in is the three-act structure. And once you grasp the inner-workings of each act, it becomes much easier to plan scenes.

Here’s a brief overview of each act.

Act One: We meet the major (and some of the not so major) characters in the story, particularly the protagonist. In a few brief scenes, we establish the opening value of the story (positive or negative or somewhere in between), the status quo of the protagonist’s life up to this point, perhaps a glimpse at his or her internal need, and a bit of back story. There may also be the beginnings of a subplot or two. But the biggest thing that happens in Act One is the Inciting Incident–something must happen to upset the status quo. It may also upset the protagonist because, remember, he has a character flaw that is trying to prevent him from acting. (Think about what he fears most.) Next, we introduce some kind of external goal that the protagonist thinks will solve the problem presented by the inciting incident and make everything better. This comes directly out of your premise statement. And to end the first act, we must see the protagonist taking the initial action to achieve that goal. This can be called a plot point, turning point, or first major reversal. The opening value has just changed in a big way.

Act Two: This is the bulk of your story and is all about creating conflicts, barriers, and antagonism. Create progressive complications by gradually raising the stakes. How far is your protagonist willing to go to achieve this goal? With each action and each reaction to these complications, she will pass the point of no return and a new level of conflict is aroused. This is also where we see our character preparing herself and devising strategies to overcome each new obstacle. We meet the antagonist full-force. We witness the strength and magnitude of all his resources and power so that it’s no wonder our protagonist fails. And finally, our main character must face her darkest moment. This is the moment when she becomes conscious of her internal need and despite losing everything, she has to continue toward that goal–even if it means death. Just as Act One ended with a plot point, so does Act Two. Our main character, now obsessed with achieving the external goal and the internal need, tries one more time. Think of what action, rather than dialogue, she will take.

Act Three: Short and sweet. We present our battle scene/climax/showdown/big finish. There is a moment of crisis in which the wrong decision at this time will lose the external goal for both the antagonist and the protagonist. There is no going back for either of them. There is no more planning. There is only doing. They square off. Who wins? Regardless of who does, our protagonist has to achieve his/her internal need. Anything left after the goal has been won is called the resolution. In a scene (or two at most) we can show the spread of climactic effects on other characters by bringing them all to one location like the beach or a party or a wedding. Now with everyone in one spot, we can wrap up any subplots, and we can provide a “slow curtain” for the audience to get their emotions under control. Didn’t you ever wonder why some people stay to watch the credits (myself included)?

Week 3 Exercise: Write a beat sheet/step-outline of your entire screenplay. Just one to two sentences will do, and it doesn’t matter where you start either. Sometimes it might be easier to start toward the climax and work your way backwards. Another idea is to write each scene on an index card then arrange them in an order that seems sensible and logical to you. If you’re a visual writer, and you probably are if you’re interested in screenwriting, it might be easier to visually see your story enfold before you as you shuffle cards into order. And don’t forget to include subplots as well as the main conflict.