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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Setting as Character

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Novel Conclusions - Setting as Character - Harry Potter example

courtesy of bn.com

In some novels, the setting works only as a backdrop, a starting-off point, but in others, the setting brings the story to life.

I can still remember the pervasive, dark heaviness of the jungle throughout the entirety of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  The impassiveness and mystery of the jungle makes the characters jumpy and also reflects Kurtz’s descent into madness.

James Dashner’s Maze Runner uses his setting, the Glade, both as an antagonist and as a puzzle to find out why the boys are there.  The mystery of the Glade itself helps build the tone of the book.

In JK Rowling‘s Harry Potter series, the grounds and buildings at Hogwarts School play a pivotal role in almost every book in the series.  The secrets of the castle — and who is in possession of those secrets — build, one upon the other, from Book 1 all the way through Book 7, though I won’t spoil the how.  We know from our first steps inside the castle that it will be important to the story:

The entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursleys’ house in it.  The stone walls were lit with flaming torches like the ones at Gringotts, the ceiling was too high to make out, and a magnificent marble staircase facing them led to the upper floors.

What can we as writers take from these examples?  In each of these books, the author deftly weaves the setting into the plot so that the story could not happen without the place it’s set in.  Each of these stories would be dramatically different if they were set in different locations.  Imagine Heart of Darkness in Paris or Harry Potter in Kansas — completely different.

Is your setting integral to the plot?  Does your story change dramatically if you change the location?  Why have you chosen a certain place (or places) to be your main setting?  How does your setting give depth to your story?  Each of these questions can give you another way to look at your setting and how to adjust it or change it entirely.

What’s your take on settings?

P.S. Check out an alternate take on the same topic here.

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A YA Book for Every State!

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I saw this infographic on Short Librarian’s Blog, and I also thought it was pretty amazing.  I had to share.  You can also find the original post at EpicReads.  Each state on this map is represented by a book that takes place in that state.

This map reminds me how many deserving YA books are still out there that I have yet to read — and also how many YA novels I’ve forgotten about that merit a second look.  I’ve read a chunk of these books, but this definitely adds a few to my list.  I remember reading Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves years ago and becoming immersed in the Alaskan setting.  More recently, Veronica Roth’s Divergent took me a to a completely different world and made it real for me.  I love discovering new reads!  Not only do they make us better writers, but they’re so much fun to read!  Have you read the book for your state?

YA Books Map -- Novel Conclusions -- writing blog

Courtesy of epicreads.com

The Power of Revealing Details

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The Giver

Courtesy of bn.com

Correctly placed details can reveal more about a character, setting, or situation than paragraphs of exposition — showing versus telling.  In revision, it’s important for us to scour every scene, every paragraph for ways to show instead of tell.  Sometimes I find that, in the frenetic rush to get the story out, my first drafts tend to be lots of telling and need to be cleaned up pretty dramatically to show more instead.

In Lois Lowry‘s The Giver, Lowry builds a fantatstic new world in barely a chapter, and she’s able to accomplish this feat with her solid use of revealing detail, as in this passage in the first chapter:

Lily considered, and shook her head.  “I don’t know.  They acted like… like…”

“Animals?” Jonas suggested.  He laughed.

“That’s right,” Lily said, laughing too.  “Like animals.”

Neither child knew what the word meant, exactly, but it was often used to describe someone uneducated or clumsy, someone who didn’t fit in.

Without telling us directly how different this society is, Lowry accomplishes this in just a few lines by showing an example of daily life without giving it to us in straight exposition.   The conversation and comment come across casually, almost as an aside, which also shows us something about the world of The Giver and the attitudes of those within it.

Whenever I revise, I try, though not always successfully, to cut as much exposition as I can without losing the thread of the story.  Which revision tricks do you use to clean up your fiction?

P.S.  Check out what the NY Times has to say about Lois Lowry’s new book Son here and how “in many ways, Lowry invented the contemporary young adult dystopian novel.”

What Makes Characters Real?

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Anne of Green Gables Cover Art

Courtesy of bn.com

Having characters we can relate to — or at least understand — is part of what makes us want to keep reading.  If we don’t care about the main characters and what happens to them, we probably won’t turn that next page.

In my humble opinion, two very distinct things make characters real to the reader:

1.  Quirks

What does your character do that makes her unique?  What makes him stand out above the sea of words and last in your readers’ memories?  Quirks.

I clearly remember how Anne in Anne of Green Gables dyed her hair green because she hated her red hair, and it’s been maybe 15 or 20 years since I read that book.  Anne Shirley, as a character, sticks in my memory because of her quirks.  I still frequently call to mind how she compared herself to her adoptive mother, Marilla, saying that she didn’t want to just walk along in her life (like Marilla); she didn’t mind thudding into the ground every so often if it meant she was able to soar with the eagles for a while in between.  That thought has stuck with me for years because author L.M. Montgomery gave Anne memorable, believable character quirks.

2. Emotional Integrity

Characters’ reactions to situations, however far-fetched those situations may be, must retain emotional integrity in order for readers to stick with the story.  If the character’s parent dies, and the character just keeps on blithely going about his daily life, we must understand why.  Otherwise, you will alienate readers.  It’s one thing to have unsympathetic characters, but quite another to have unsympathetic characters without reasons why.

For example, Scarlett O’Hara works as an unsympathetic character because we want to understand why she’s doing what she’s doing.  However, unsympathetic characters with no reasons behind their actions (at least, no reasons apparent to the reader) will lose the reader.  I was recently reading the third book in a triology where the main character had been fairly well established, and all of a sudden, he does something crazy that is never fully explained for the entire book.  I finished the book since I was comparing notes on the book with someone else who was reading it, but I made the decision never to read any other book by that author again.  I felt cheated.

On the other hand, you can find a book with an incredible premise that wouldn’t generally happen in daily life, like Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it comes across as believable because the characters act in ways that make sense for their situation.  When the main character (whose real name we never learn) in The Handmaid’s Tale savors every detail in her room because she can’t visit many places in the outside world, it feels very real for her situation.  When she’s afraid of being discovered for her dissension, it feels very true to her character.

What makes a character feel real to you?

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