Writing Good Setting

Recall that there are three components to any novel: character, plot and setting. Let’s take a look at the latter.

Most ideas for new novels begin with one of the above. Either you have an idea for a character but no full story yet, or a story but not the characters, or perhaps you have the setting. A hotel, a workplace, a distant land, a country estate, a forest. I personally have been motivated several times to start writing based on an idea for a setting that captivated my imagination. To a large extent, setting will affect both your characters and the plot. Of course, all three aspects should be completely intertwined, such that the characters will affect the eventual settings, the setting will affect the course of the plot, and the plot will affect the characters themselves.

Now, how do you portray setting in your novel? Most writers think they need to write lots of description in their scenes, conveying every little detail. That is not necessary, and makes for bad fiction. To illustrate my point, look at each of the following words and then note what comes to your mind.

  • House
  • Mansion
  • Garden
  • Office
  • High street
  • Greengrocers
  • Car

Now, most likely what happened was that your mind conjured up images of each of these things, based on your own memories and experiences. When you read the word “mansion,” your mind instantly brought up an image of a mansion, perhaps something you saw outside, on TV, or perhaps your own house…

My point is that readers are not blank slates that must be fed everything about your story. They bring their own memories, thoughts and ideas with them and will superimpose them on your story, including your characters, your plot and your setting. You don’t need to go into detail to describe, for example, the colour of the car, unless it’s important to your story. That’s the key point to take away: don’t put something in your novel unless it moves the story forward. This ties in with one of my earlier posts about using adjectives and adverbs. Just write “car” instead of “blue, shiny car.” The moment the reader sees the word “car”, they will tend to think about their own car regardless of whether you say it’s blue or it’s shiny. It doesn’t add value to your story. Don’t go into lots of detail describing scenery, unless, for example, your character is an artist and his observation of the scenery is part of the story. I think you get the idea.

So, when adding description, stick to the basics. Keep it simple, but not simplistic. Your scenes should be 90% action, dialogue and introspection, just 10% description. Don’t leave it out altogether, but be sensible about where you add it.

Remember that the best setting begins in the mind of the author, but ends in the mind of the reader.

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Chapter Titles

Should you have titles for the chapters in your book? Some writers do it and some don’t, and arguably, some stories are better suited to them than others. The trick is thinking of a name that identifies the key event of the chapter without giving too much away! Also, you have to beware of clichés—I personally have a bad habit of thinking up names like those in the Famous Five novels. Also, it’s sometimes quite hard to think up a good name, especially if the chapter is short and is character-centric.

Try to think of what is happening in the chapter from a birds-eye point of view, and especially what is happening in the middle point of the chapter or just before the chapter ends. This part of the chapter is a good candidate for picking a title. You can’t pick a title based on what’s happening at the end of the chapter because that would give your story away (which is a no-no, of course). Now, all this is assuming that your chapters end on a cliffhanger or soft landing (I called this a ‘bouncy cushion’ once).

If an unexpected event occurs during the chapter then you might want to think about whether the title should hint at this or not. Perhaps you could arrange the chapters so that the unexpected event happens at the end of the last chapter, so that the title of the new chapter can reflect the consequences of the event rather than the event itself.

Now you may wonder whether it’s worth having chapter titles at all. It’s all up to you, but it looks like many children’s novels do have these titles. Novels for older readers sometimes do have them. Some writers also like to include quotations or symbols for each chapter, as might be relevant to the story.

On dyslexia

My recently published novel, Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, is about a girl with reading difficulties who discovers she has a connection with the world of the fairies, and who goes on a dangerous journey with little time to spare. Fairies, dyslexia, and the great outdoors are the three big themes of the story. In this post, I’d like to talk a bit about the second.

When, many years ago, I first had the idea for the story, the main character, Jennifer, wasn’t even the main character. Rather, she was one of three relatively equal characters (Amy, her sister, and Simon, her cousin—both still in the story). However, by the mysterious laws (or anarchy?) of character development, Jennifer seemed to grow and grow until she not only became the main character of the story but also took over the narrative point of view.

Around this time, my mother had begun working as a teaching assistant at a special needs school. I remember one day noticing a book that she had left on our dining room table about the topic of dyslexia. Idle curiosity (or perhaps the Muses of old, who knows?), prompted me to pick up the book and leaf through it. I’d heard about dyslexia before, but didn’t really know in detail about what it was or who it affected.

I wish I remembered the name of that book—I only remember the yellow cover, and that it was relatively old, published in the early 80s. Reading it, I found myself intrigued. Dyslexia is a condition apparently caused by certain issues with brain development that causes difficulties with learning to read and write. People with dyslexia will tend to perform these tasks relatively slowly, often confuse the order of letters in words, struggle (to varying degrees) to absorb written information, and also find it harder than most to follow an exact sequence of instructions.

However, what I found fascinating is that many famous people in history have been dyslexic. In this amazing list are people as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci (his mirror handwriting, remember!), Pablo Picasso, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill. The condition of dyslexia itself may not necessarily have been known about while some of these individuals were alive, but with hindsight, it is clear that many of the difficulties they expressed regarding reading and writing would today be recognised as obvious symptoms.

It is also very strange that so many modern day artists and actors are dyslexic. There seems to be some kind of link between the condition of dyslexia and a high degree of creativity. It is almost as if the same brain development pathways that cause difficulties with reading and writing also enable an individual to sharpen their creative thinking. In fact, many dyslexics will say how much more comfortable they are with images rather than words. Perhaps this is why they will tend to seek out activities that don’t require so much focus on the written word.

Indeed, there is one school of thought that regards dyslexia as a ‘gift’ or blessing in disguise, enabling a person to think in a much more holistic way, using the power of images rather than letters and words. Perhaps, in some sense, there is a dyslexic in all of us. How often have we heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”? We are all able to ‘think in pictures’. It’s just that dyslexics have the capacity (or power, if you like) to take it that one step further.

I think it’s important to state, if it isn’t already obvious, that dyslexia does not affect intelligence or actual capacity to learn. In that sense, it is very unlike autism (which can share some symptoms with dyslexia), with which it is sometimes incorrectly linked (as they are both classified as special educational needs). More specifically, according to NHS England, dyslexia is classified as a “specific learning difficulty”, rather than a “learning disability.”

I should say here that I’m not dyslexic myself. Perhaps, since I always been such a passionate reader, I had my interest piqued by a condition that causes natural difficulties with something I enjoyed so much. By the time I’d finished that yellow book, I’d made up my mind—Jennifer Brown was going to be dyslexic. I hadn’t realised just how profoundly that would alter the story as I continued to churn through the plot. In the final book, her difficulty with reading and writing is as central as it can be to the story, and her desire to overcome her problems and to find a way to be ‘just as good as everyone else’ is one of her great motivators.

Jennifer, in the second and third instalments in the Fairyhand trilogy, will begin to learn to read and write (yes, I’m giving a little tease of what’s to come!). Although there is no ‘cure’ (it is a lifelong condition), there are plenty of excellent teaching methods and support strategies that can be used to help dyslexics learn to read and write, and perhaps some of those may make their way into the books to come.

I like to think, by combining the ‘fairy’ and the ‘dyslexic’, I have in some small way created a character that helps show the condition in its best light, while highlighting the real-world issues that dyslexic people inevitably face.

The Negation of the Negation

There are lots of techniques to help with building good stories, and one of them works by looking at the general theme of the story. This technique is best used after most of the characters and plot have been developed, but some finishing touches are required. The reason is that the theme only becomes obvious after the plot is ready. It generally is not advisable to start with a theme – readers don’t want to be lectured, but entertained.

So let’s say the theme of our story is love. At some point in the story this emotion will figure in some way, for example by the guy and girl getting together. Now what we can do is look at the theme that is contrary to love. What’s contrary to love? Indifference. How can we use this in the story? Possibly the guy can start off by not caring about the girl in any way and ignoring her attention, or vice versa. Next up, what’s contradictory to love (i.e. what can you not easily have at the same time)? Hate, of course. So, after they fall in love, maybe the guy could (wrongly) suspect the girl of cheating, so he goes off and actually cheats himself on a drunken night out, comes back home with the girl he picked up and meets our girl. So they end up hating each other.

Finally, and this is the crunch, what is worse than hate? How about self-hate? The guy realises his mistake and blames himself for his stupidity. He becomes suicidal…at this point the story can have either a happy or sad ending, depending on the mood of the relevant author .

This worst possible case is called the negation of the negation, or worse than worse. In English, two negatives make a positive (e.g. I didn’t do nothing = I did something). The same goes in maths: (2 – (-2) = +4). Funnily enough, this isn’t the same in all languages. For example, in Italian, two negatives make a negative (e.g. ‘non ho fatto niente‘), which in some sense is more reflective of the way things tend to work in real life.

So what we have is:

POSITIVE -> CONTRARY -> CONTRADICTORY -> NEGATION OF THE NEGATION

Here are some other examples of themes – notice they all start with positives and go towards negatives:

Life -> Unconsciousness -> Death -> Damnation

Love -> Indifference -> Hate -> Self-Hate or Hate Disguised as Love

Loyalty -> Split Alliegance -> Betrayal -> Self-Betrayal

Justice -> Unfairness -> Injustice -> Tyranny

Wealthy -> Middle-class -> Poverty -> Wealthy but Suffering Pains of Poverty

Courage -> Weakness -> Cowardice -> Cowardice Percieved as Courage

Wisdom -> Ignorance -> Stupidity -> Stupidity Perceived as Wisdom

Freedom -> Restraint -> Slavery -> Slavery Perceived as Freedom

Success -> Compromise -> Failure -> Selling Out