A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

  1. Pull any four novels off your shelves.
  2. Flip through the first book randomly. Write down the first name you see. This will be your main character‘s name. Repeat at least one more time (so you have a minimum of two characters) but as many times as you like. (Remember you’ll have to incorporate them into your story, though, so don’t get too carried away.)
  3. Open the second book randomly. The first place name or description you see (e.g. London, bedroom, mountains) will be your primary setting.
  4. Flip through the third book randomly. Write down the first five events you see. These will form the backbone of your plot.
  5. Open the fourth book randomly. Base the theme of your story on the first emotion you see (envy, fear, guilt, grief, happiness, jealousy, love, pride, shame, trust, etc.).
  6. Make the story your own by using your own style to combine these elements.


Setting Yourself Up

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

I set the first short story I wrote for my first undergraduate writing class on a New York subway: a woman fell madly in love with the guy across from her until he opened his mouth. Not a bad story for an eighteen year old with no training, but I had never been on a subway. Most of the class did the same kind of thing, setting stories in New Orleans, Atlanta and, like half of us, New York. For the next assignment, our instructor specified, “Write about a place you know.”

So I started with setting. Writing teachers often preach “begin with character.” I agree, to a point. Character is essential to your story. Without memorable characters you could have the world’s greatest story but no one would care about it. However I don’t think it’s a starting place. When starting a story from scratch, I recommend beginning with setting.

Background Image: Kenneth Spencer/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

There are two parts to setting: place and time. Time might not seem like part of setting. Yet if you set a story in present day, someday it will be dated and the details you use will create setting for future readers. Think of this example from The Sun Also Rises:

It was a warm spring night and I sat at a table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic-signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clippety-clopping along at the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal.” i

Hemingway juxtaposes modern wonders (electric signs, traffic lights, taxicabs) with old-world staples (horse-cabs, prostitutes). He shows us a city, caught between embracing its history and accepting post-war innovations. In this way, the setting reflects the characters he’s created.

Place, in setting, should be familiar. A writer can “know” a place without having visited. Your place can be “familiar” without existing. You can invent a town from scratch or you can place your characters in your own backyard. Setting should be subtle and a writer should know it intimately. If you don’t know your setting inside and out, it will show in the writing and become a distraction. If you’ve done it right, your readers will say, “I felt like I was there.”

Consider this example – the opening paragraph from Wise Blood:

Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through treetops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the edge of the farthest woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones. Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, who was facing Motes in the section, said that she thought the early evening like this was the prettiest time of day and she asked him if he didn’t think so too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor.ii

We see a familiarity, a level of comfort in the setting. Not every tiny detail is thrown at us but through the simplicity of “plowed fields” and “hogs” we know that this place is rural, agricultural. It also piques our interest. Is Haze headed for a rural life? Leaving one? Or is he merely passing through it, as the train is?

Once your setting is familiar, think about the people who live there. Think about a place’s history, geography, climate, prevailing religion, economic circumstances and so forth. For example: if the weather is hot, people may move more slowly. How would this affect the actions of your characters? Have there been recent wars? How do neighbors get along? Does everyone go to the same church? Is there a “rich” section of town along the river?

There are many ways to establish setting by using all senses. For example, think of the earth itself: Is it muddy? Packed? Crumbling? Black? Brown? Red? Purple? Does it smell of fertilizer? Is it that “clean dirt” smell? Can you see any soil at all? Is the ground covered in concrete? Has it been scorched?

When describing setting, remember to embrace all the senses. The Wise Blood paragraph is quite visual; this becomes bittersweet as Haze blinds himself later in the story. Sensation may also used effectively, as in this slice from The Great Gatsby:

The prolonged a tumultuous argument that ended by herding us into that room eludes me, though I have a sharp physical memory that, in the course of it, my underwear kept climbing like a damp snake around my legs and intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back.iii

Nick describes the heat of the room but this heat underscores not only the heat between Daisy and Gatsby but also the tense heat of Tom’s boiling disdain. Tom suspects Daisy and Gatsby, but at this point has said nothing. With jazzy music emanating from the wedding reception downstairs, the setting is ripe for an explosion. Nick doesn’t notice his shirt or pants clinging to him, but his underwear, described as a “damp snake.” So much imagery and symbolism packed into one sentence, all basically used to put us in this place.

In the Gatsby example, setting underscores the characters themselves. Characters and setting are intertwined. Without characters to add color and life to your setting, all you have is a postcard. However, you can use a postcard to show us changes, to highlight mood or to foil what is happening in your story.

Setting becomes a character in the best stories. Consider this fictional Alabama community:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.iv

Maycomb provides a steady undercurrent for the whole of the book. Maycomb lives and breathes as much as Scout, Jem and Atticus do. Without this setting, none of To Kill A Mockingbird could have unfolded in quite the same way.

Once you have the elements of setting in place, move along to characters. From there you can layer everything else that sets your story apart.

i Hemingway, Ernest; The Sun Also Rises, New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1926

ii O’Connor, Flannery; Wise Blood (from Three by Flannery O’Connor: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, Everything That Rises Must Converge) New York: New America Library, 1983. First copyright 1949 by Flannery O’Connor

iii Fitzgerald, F. Scott; The Great Gatsby, New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1925

iv Lee, Harper; To Kill A Mockingbird, Philadelphia J. B. Lippincott, 1960