Sunday, July 10, 2011

Writing Advice 4 — The Who, What, and the Where

Now that you have read the supply list, and considered your outline you are adequately armed and ready to tackle the challenge of creative writing. To begin let’s look at the basic building blocks of any story. I will be throwing lots of terms around and speaking with great authority, but it is important to keep in mind that I have no idea what I’m talking about. That is to say, what I am about to relate is what I have discovered on my own either through observation, or trial and error and most of the terms I’ve made up. If you want the more traditional, scholar-based info, I’m certain there are lots of good books and other websites. All I can tell you is what has worked for me.

Now, with the disclaimer complete, let’s begin.

The basic components of any story are characterization (who), plot (what), and setting (where). I’ll tell you about the why a little later. Now while these are the parts of a story, a writer doesn’t directly create any of them, but rather uses tools that in turn creates them. These tools are: Description, Dialog, and Reflection (reflection being the thoughts of a character.) One of the biggest mistakes I have seen new writers make is only using one or two of these tools, or using all three but relying on only one to tell the story. It is easy to see why those with screen, and or, playwriting experience, invariably focus on dialog. As for those who rip through a story on pure narrative, tend to be impatient to get the story out. Neither of these really work. The first leaves the reader feeling blind, the second is boring because the reader is being told the story rather than being invited into it.

Now while I don’t feel that Characterization, Plot and Setting need to be balanced in a story, Description, Dialog and Reflection I think do. Leaving any one of these tools idle in your toolbox will just make the work of developing a good story that much harder. They also tend to work together to keep the work from moving too slowly or too quickly. Description tends to slow down a story while dialog tends to speed it up. Reflection can slow a work down, but if done in the right voice can also work as a catalyst to keep things moving. I’ll explain more later, but the point here is that by using near equal parts throughout a story, the piece will read smoothly and at a proper pace, neither dragging or racing.

Now at this point someone will invariably raise their hand, waving it a bit to get my attention so they can reminded me that, “Well, Charles Dickens did it that way, or Stephen King did it this way,” to indicate that successful authors don’t always adhere to this rule or that rule. Usually this is followed by another writer replying, “Yes, but you’re not them.” (This actually happened a few times in writer’s groups.) So to clarify, yes these rules can be broken…all rules can be broken, but before you start breaking them, you might want to first master them. It is best to stick with crawling before trying to do back flips. 
Since you brought up Mr. Dickens, let’s consider him a moment. Charles Dickens was the most popular English novelist in the Victorian era. Herman Melville was a contemporary, as was Edgar Allen Poe, and Mary Shelly. All of these writers used a very heavy narrative style, not because it is the best form of writing, but because it was the popular style of that time. This is not the case any longer. Dense exposition is no more popular today than classical music. I don’t mean to demean classical music anymore than the classic novels of the 1800’s, but the fact remains that while in their day Mozart and Bach were rock stars, you don’t see new classical pieces toping the pop charts anymore than you will find novels written in heavy prose on the bestseller’s lists.  Dense prose like that tend to be slow reads and modern readers are showing a preference for fast-paced, attention-getting stories. I personally feel this is the result of television and movies. More and more readers visualize books as movies which in some sense is limiting, but does allow the writer an idea of how the reader is likely to imagine any given scene. This short attention span has taken a firm root in the taste of many readers and they expect to be sucked into a story from the start and driven to turn pages and are not as impressed by long meandering exposition. Taste will vary of course, from genre to genre, and reader to reader.

Let’s get back to the basic parts of a story, remember them? Characterization, Plot and Setting? There are subdivisions in these components.

Setting can be broken down into, functional, atmospheric, or effecting. Functional is merely explaining that there is a table in a room. Atmospheric is setting a mood by describing that table as having deep carvings that make the legs look like arms and the feet like claws that could just move by itself at any moment. Effecting is when the setting exists to effect the plot, the table is made of wood and so when it is broken, a splinter can be used to kill the vampire.

Characterization can be internal, or external, expositional or situational. Internal is done through reflection or internal thoughts, where external is the result of one character describing another or observing them. Expositional is when the author comes out and describes the character directly through the narrative. Situational is when a character is revealed only by how they react to events.

Plots can be simplistic: straight-forward, Loose: a rambling yarn, Tight: when nothing mentioned is wasted, (often the result of weaving,) twisting: unexpected developments, or woven: when elements reoccur often for changing reasons to effect the story. (There maybe a few others, I haven’t spent too much time pondering this.)

Depending on the kind of story you want to build, you will use more of one type than another. And unlike Description, Dialog, and Reflection, the amount of Characterization, Plot, and Setting will vary.

While not consistently true, I’ve discovered that certain genres tend to favor certain combinations. Traditional science fiction tends to favor plot, above all, with setting coming in a distance second and characterization an even more distance third. I think this might be due to the idea that if you ask most science fiction authors or readers, what science fiction is, the answer you’ll likely get is something like this: A story about the effect of a possible technological advance on society. So the emphasis is on the “what,” and most of the details will be about what the advance is, and what the effect is. In Fantasy, it tends to be on the setting or the “where” except in fantasy-speak it is called “world building.” In Romance, I suspect the emphasis is on character or the “who.” Thrillers I think focus again on the what, with a minor in “who,” while Mysteries are also on the “what,” but often add setting as a strong minor. Horror likes to focus on atmospheric setting, with a minor on character—put a person you like in a scary place and you have a horror story. What actually happens sometimes seems irrelevant.

This isn’t to say all stories are this way, or that they should be. Often times authors cross over. The book Dune by Frank Herbert, places a huge emphasis on setting, to the point of it being more in the style of world-building fantasies than science fiction. Perhaps for this reason, and likely due to a less strenuous adherence to scientific rules, many have referred to it as science-fantasy. This however, did not prevent it from winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards. 

So why do so many stories in the same genre mimic each other? Mostly I think because writers learn by reading, and most aspiring writers are encouraged to read lots of books in their specific genre to see “how it is done.” I personally don’t agree with this. I think it is important to read some books in the genre you plan to do most of your writing in, but I think it is just as important to read the other genres. Sticking with one genre and then writing in it causes inbreeding. Just like in biology it reduces the number of options until the result is weak, anemic, and prone to sickness. Crossbreeding with other genres and techniques infuses writing with fresh ideas. The larger your sampling, the greater chance of creating a startling new concept that might take an existing idea and just approach it a little differently.

When I wrote my own fantasy series, I intentionally chose to write them more in a thriller stance than a fantasy one. I came to this conclusion for two reasons. First, I wanted to have a very large and complex plot, but did not want the reader to forget all the elements as they drowned in a sea of character reflection, or world-building nuances. So I went with a focus on a complex, twisted, and woven plot, with a minor in situational characterization. It doesn’t always sit well with traditional fantasy fans, but it does offer a fresh approach even while I used traditional fantasy elements. Second, I found that I was more prone to read books that started out interesting and pulled the reader into the story, and most alternate-world, historical-fantasy novels did not do that. This was one of the reasons I lost interest in fantasy novels, they were just too hard to break into.

So how do you use Description, Dialog and Reflection to create Characterization, Plot and Setting? This tends to be one of those things that writers are always discovering, learning and building on. It is what separates a good writer from a bad one, and created the famous show don’t tell, rule as a general guide to help new writers avoid common missteps. And as this post is already long, and answering this question will take several posts I think I will stop here for now.

For your homework, think about some of the books and stories you’ve read and see if you can tell where the emphasis was, plot, characterization, setting, or a variation. Then try and see if there is a pattern reflected in the books that you like to read the most? Are they consistent? Is your writing style similar, or in contrast to it? Do you think it should be the same, different, or vary with the kind of book you are trying to write?

That’s the bell. Next Sunday is: Show and Tell. And remember, no running in the halls.


  1. writing advice 1: check your headlines :P

  2. Tokrika,

    So people are paying attention. Sweet!

    For those of you who don't know what this comment is about. Tokrika noticed I had four Advice posts and the last two were titled "Advice 3." I fixed this one since then.

    This is why I need editors.

    Thanks Tokrika.

  3. That's a whole lot of reflection exposition. Good post though. And I agree with the dont read a bunch of what you write, although I also think it might be more complicated/simple than you let on, people read what they like, they are also more inclined to write what they like, which means that a fantasy reader is more likely to write a fantasy story, not because they read fantasy to learn how to write fantasy, but because they like fantasy.

    Not saying its good or bad, just another way to think about it.

    p.s. I gave you an award on my blog (its Libby's fault)

  4. Because its a competitive world. We may came across this type of situations anywhere..not only with writing..

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  5. Nice post Mike.... I like that you bring up the balance between dialogue, description and setting.... I've been thinking a lot about this concept too. I sometimes wonder how balanced it needs to be, if certain scenes can have more dialogue to add a sense of urgency to them and such. Interesting to think about... anyways, looking forward to the next post since my beginnings seem to have too much "telling" to them.

  6. Jess,

    Interesting that you should mention Telling as a problem with your beginnings. I have to agree, but patience is also an issue.

  7. Hi. I've read all your Writing Advice Posts; very excellent, by the way, and I have a question of my own. How do you come up with the names for your characters/settings? I've read Riyria, and find your names especially "believable". I'm an aspiring medieval fantasy author, so it's not as easy as looking in a baby name book. Helpful hints?

  8. This is a fantastic piece and has helped me tremendously.
    I now understand why parts of my stories drag, too much of one trait and not enough of another.
    Plus, I now understand what I need to look for to create a balance in my works.

    Jeez , I probably sound like a yahoo... Just realize I'm a pretty introverted individual, plus the way you have written these "lessons"... well my brain is readily soaking them up.
    Thank you again, for providing this wealth of information.

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