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A Sense of Home

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Cabin with Children Playing by Thomas Birch via Wikimedia Commons

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to create a sense of home for my main character in my current work-in-progress.  Before the inciting incident in most stories, the author establishes a “normal” that the character will soon be deviating from.  This sense of normality, often a feeling of home, establishes a foundation or a jumping off point for your story.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett preens in the spotlight as the belle of the ball before the Civil War turns her world upside down.  Understanding her place in the pecking order helps us as readers much more fully appreciate what she is trying to win back as her journey wears on.  We can relate to her more fully (even though we’re not selfish debutantes, not usually, anyway) because we know where she started.

In Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, Bray establishes Gemma’s comfortable life in India in order to really underline the differences between her life before the inciting incident and afterwards.  Mild first chapter spoiler ahead – when Gemma’s mother dies (our inciting incident), and she is sent to boarding school in England, the dreary, cold setting contrasts starkly against the vivid view of India that opened the story.  This illustrates for us as readers how much Gemma wants to escape, a theme that plays out throughout the novel.

How do we establish the scene, a sense of home (or at least the foundational “normal”), in our own writing?

  • Make it matter.  A few strong details that we can call back to mind later in the story will do more than long chapters of exposition (I still can’t believe Dickens had an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House.  I never could finish that one).
  • Maximize contrast between the before and the after.  The luxury of Scarlett’s life made the struggle afterwards even more evident.  The festive, colorful atmosphere in India made Gemma’s first few days in England even more dreary.
  • Establish empathy early on (e.g. have a “Save the Cat” moment).  Before the main character hits the inciting incident head-on, when the scene is being set, we as readers need to learn something about our main character that gives us a reason to care.  If we are not given a reason to care, we may not even continue reading.  For example, I turned off the movie Taken after less than 20 minutes because I didn’t care one whit what happened to Liam Neeson’s character; the audience was given no tangible reason to care about him before he got in trouble.

How else can you establish a foundation before your inciting incident?  How do you create a sense of home in your stories?

About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

13 responses

  1. I laughed when you mentioned Bleak House…the only time in my college days that I bought a cliff notes…could NOT get through that one…LOL!

  2. Thank you for the awesome post. It really brings home the value of… erm… home 🙂

  3. Establishing a sense of normal before the inciting incident is proving more difficult in the current writing climate. Agents and editors want to see action from the get-go, not several chapters of background. And sometimes the inciting incident happens very early on, requiring even more adeptness making the reader care.

    • I identified with this, Carrie! It’s a difficult thing to carry off a sense of home and who the character is, etc. when you have begun with action. I had the same issue with a novel I just finished. It is fast paced from the beginning. I tried to slip in enough to have the reader care about the character, but it is slippery business! In the end, I think it is about “what works,” and although there are guidelines that provide a timeworn structure, you don’t have to adhere to the structure if you can make your reader want to keep going that is the key.

  4. Alison J. McKenzie

    Excellent post. Thank you for sharing. This is actually something I’m working on with my novel. It may be a little too fast-paced, without enough time taken to establish the setting and characters. My current goal is to write the first draft keeping the fast pace, and adding in details in the second draft where it’s lacking. Your post will certainly help me do that. I like the “Save the Cat” moment idea.

  5. I’ve been writing a story with characters that are very transient. So a sense of home doesn’t really work in that sense. What I have found, instead, is that home can mean interpersonal relationships and complex social webs that are either maintained or disturbed as the story unfolds.

  6. Christi, all your posts are thought-provoking and so helpful. Thank you! This one has made me ponder–just what are the elements that make a reader CARE about a just-introduced character? If you have posted about that, please link for me and if not, please ponder yourself and share! Perhaps it is worth a post. 🙂

  7. I agree with Carrie and TK above. It’s hard to start with tension while still showing “before.” In my novel, I start with the moments before my inciting incident (a family being led to their execution) and have my main protagonist (the only family member who survives) remember “before” in flashback for a few pages. I then return to the tension.

  8. Good topic Christi! Your examples are spot-on. I also agree with Josh above in his scenario, home is something completely non-physical. In the end, it’s all about what change our protagonist goes through in order to end up in a new realization. Good stuff guys!

  9. This is a great topic. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because my novel has a quick pace. Since the action starts right away, instilling a sense of normalcy has been challenging. I had only half a scene to convey that. But I agree that it’s important to show the “before” to make the “after” understandable.

  10. That painting startled me for a moment because it reminds me very much of the painting in The Witches, where the little girl is trapped and moves about until she grows old and one days is gone… such a wonderful story. Off topic much? 😛

  11. This is great. And btw, I agree completely about Taken haha
    I nominated you for the Liebster, check it out!

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