I'm speaking tonight at the Altisma Chapel on how to write a story in thirty minutes.
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688
Here's a bite of what I'm going to say.
Another crucial story element is setting. Your story should take place somewhere near and dear to your heart. You should be able to write with some confidence about the weather, the humidity or the hot dry wind, the local birds, the native trees and plants and most importantly—the kind of people who live there. Have you had this experience, you’re reading a book set in Capistrano and your couple is at the mission and you find yourself wondering—where are the pigeons? Or, you’re reading a book set in Washington and your hero is wading through the swamp, in mid-summer, toward evening and you find yourself thinking about mosquitoes, but the author doesn’t mention them. Why is this bad? Because all good story telling should suck in the reader and clunky story telling will take us out of the story.
Setting should also set the mood.
Good description paints not only a picture of what is happening around the character, but also what is happening internally to the character. Here’s an example from my novel The Rhyme’s Library.
The lights flickered a warning. Wind storms and power outages were common in tiny Rose Arbor. Flickering candle light, a roaring fire and a good book were only enjoyable at home. But she wasn’t going home. Gathering up her things, she debated her plan. Confront Drake or wait out the storm in front of a fire with a Mary Stewart novel? Fight sluggish traffic, wind and rain for the hour drive to Bellingham or cuddle under a quilt and read? Her resolve wavering, she locked the heavy wooden doors and headed for the light switch.
Knocking. Someone at the door or the wind? Looking over her shoulder she watched the door knob rattle. It took a moment to unlock the heavy wooden doors. The storm’s cold wet wind flew in the library, and Blair looked in confusion at the pitching trees and driving rain. Gray skies cracked with lightning. She was about to go back inside when she saw a huddled figure at the side of the porch.
The storm heightens and accentuates Blair’s indecision and confusion. You can also use setting to create a disparity. Say for example your hero has just experienced a tragic loss while he’s at a circus. He’s surrounded by laughing children, clowns, couples holding hands—his mood, in contrast to the pleasure and happiness around him, emphasizes his loneliness and pain. Here’s an example of this from my novel Stealing Mercy.
New York City’s night noises seeped through the wall chinks and window: the jingle of horse harnesses, the stomping of hooves, the mournful howl of a dog, but one noise, a noise that didn't belong, jarred Mercy awake.
A creak on the stairs that led to her apartment. The third from the top, five steps past Mr. Bidwell’s door. Only those wishing to reach her home crossed that step. She never entertained visitors in the tiny attic; she wasn’t expecting company.
Mercy is in her quiet apartment. Everything is peaceful—except for the one out of place sound. A mood is set and tension is created all without dialogue.
Which brings me to another important element of story telling. Voice. The best advice I ever heard about voice is this—imagine that you are telling a story to your best friend. Write your story as simply and beautifully as you would tell it to someone who knows you well. If your best friend is William Falkner, go ahead a wax poetic, but if not, tell your story in your own words and lingo. This is a common trap. Here’s the opening paragraph of my friend Terry Black’s short story, Eating Crow.
Micawber's first thought when he saw the humans was, Great! Another food source.
They were always dropping things, forgetting things, leaving food unattended — practically an invitation for Micawber to swoop in and help himself. That was a high priority, especially now, with his mate almost ready to lay her eggs, depending on him for food and protection. He perched on his roost, cooing softly to Whitethroat, and watched for his chance.
And here’s the opening paragraph of The Rhyme’s Library:
Blair brought her finger down on a random word. Brobdingnagian—she wrote the word and definition on the chalkboard above the circulation desk and came up with her own sample sentence. Drake Isling is a brobdingnagian twit. And because she gave each of her library patrons a chocolate for every sample sentence they gave, she took one for herself, even though Brobdingnagian was technically tomorrow’s word. Today’s word was tenebrous: dark; gloomy. Tenebrous describes the weather and my mood, she thought and then realized that she deserved a chocolate for her second sample sentence. My thighs will be brobdingnagian if I don’t stop eating these chocolates. Another sentence—another chocolate.
Terry and I write differently, because we’re very different people. I’m in a critique group with Melanie Jacobson and Brittany Larsen. I love and appreciate what they do for my stories, but they are both ten years younger occasionally they complain that my characters talk too old for their age. And they are probably right so every once in a while I’ll follow their suggestions and make a word change. Well, a friend who has known me for many years read my book. After telling me that she loved it, she said, but every so often there would be this one word that just didn’t sound like you. Not all of my readers will know me as well as my friend, but this is definitely something to think about and consider. As much as I love my critique partners and admire their work, I don’t want to sound like them. Or Terry. Or William Falkner. I want to write my stories, in my voice.
And you should want that, too.