Friday, December 7th, 2012

Writing Prompt: Setting the Scene

School Bus Arriving to drop kids off at school.The setting in a story is the place and time the story occurs. Every story has one. It lends context to the tale.

The settings for different types of stories will be different, as will the approach to creating them. One thing to consider is the audience reading the book.

For instance, the setting for a story taking place in modern Washington, DC might include a description of the Lincoln Memorial, the terrible traffic, diesel fumes from buses, protesters on the corner, etc. It might include some details on the weather: the oppressive heat of a July sun baking all that marble or the sleet of a November rain. And that’s it: just enough detail to ground the reader to location and atmosphere. He’ll fill in the rest with his own imagination.

A period romance might include the description of a brownstone townhouse in England, gas lamps on the sidewalk (if you’re in the rich part of town) or ragamuffin children (on the poor side of town). It will usually infer the economic status of the heroine, and some background, so we know how she got to this place and time. And, it might include a description of the historical events taking place, so that the reader gets an idea of the main character’s thoughts and motives. This description might go on for several paragraphs, because this audience enjoys rich detail.

Science Fiction readers will want explicit details on science, mechanics, atmosphere, politics, etc. But you don’t want to include detail, for detail’s sake. For instance, while you’re setting the scene, if you have machine that creates breathable atmosphere on a planet formerly known for its deadly gases, you don’t need to explain how that works…unless one of your characters is knowledgeable about it, or questions how it works, AND that information is crucial to the story.

If specific details aren’t important, but you point them out, you’ll either a) bore the reader, or b) leave him wondering why you included the detail. You don’t want that bouncing around in the reader’s head when she should be enjoying the story.

Also, a good rule of thumb when setting the scene is to include details related to the five senses. So, describe:

  1. what is seen
  2. what is heard
  3. what is felt (or touched)
  4. what is smelled, and,
  5. what is tasted

The hard part is writing the scene without making it sound like a checklist, like this:

The chaotic barnyard was filled it with animals. I could hear the cows mooing, the chickens squawking, and in the background somewhere, an old hound dog. The dirt was hard-packed beneath my feet, and I could feel every pebble through my shoe. Someone hadn’t mucked out the barn in ages. I could smell the dung all the way across the pasture. The wind kicked up, blowing dust in my face. I could taste the corn feed Farmer Brown just strew for the hens.


Here’s Your Prompt:

Here are a few suggested locations and time periods, choose one and write the scene.

  • A junior high school in the US, mid-1970s.
  • Modern day in a Scottish castle.
  • A 1950s traveling carnival.
  • A rock ‘n’ roll concert during the holidays, and the singer is late.
  • Thanksgiving Dinner – the week before Thanksgiving.
  • A fictional planet, during a civil war.
  • The coast of any continent, 1800s, during a powerful storm.
  • Today, in your home town.
  • England, during the middle ages, in a small cottage
  • Santa’s workshop, in July.
  • Alice’s Wonderland – only set the scene of somewhere Alice didn’t go.

If none of these strike your fancy, choose your own time and place.

Good luck!

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Writing Prompt: Lost

NOT the Underpass to Which I ReferI think I’ve mentioned before that I can get lost with a map in one hand and a GPS in the other. I absolutely despise driving somewhere new for the first time.

If it’s important that I make it there on time, I’ll often make a dry run: like in October when I had a reading at the Constellation Book Store in Reisterstown. The weekend before the reading, I drove to the bookstore to make certain I could find it when I had to.

Par for the course, I got lost, even though I had the GPS and the Yahoo Map with me in the car.

Once, when I was in college, I had to drive into Washington, DC for a late-night event. The evening ended at 11 p.m., and at 1:00 a.m. I was still driving around the city streets. I knew I was in trouble when I’d driven under the 7th street* bridge for the 3rd time. I needed gas and there was not an open station in sight.

I won’t ever forget the panicky feeling I had, driving around, alone, the seep of the cold in my little Ford Escort. Keeping silence in the car, rather than my usual blasting metal.

I thought I’d never get out of the city.

Here’s Your Prompt: Write about being lost. If you’re journaling, this could be a personal time when you were lost. If not, throw your character out into the wild.

Where is he lost? In the city or in the woods? During a gentle summer evening or a sleeting winder evening, darkness falling.

Make sure your character has no means to navigate: no compass, no GPS, no sewing needle and cork (look it up if you don’t know what I’m referring to). If you want to be really cruel, make certain your character has no sense of direction, too. Also: there’s no one around to ask directions of.

How does she feel? Is she panicked? Resigned? Pragmatic? Is her stomach upset? Is she shaking? Does she feel like she wants to throw up? How does he react? Swear? Cry? Kick something? When your character finally moves…tell us why he or she chose that direction. Did he see a light in the distance? Smoke? The sound of gunfire? Maybe they’re running away from one direction, rather than another. Why?

Make it as hard as possible for your character to find his way. And once he or she does, describe the relief, the ensuing anger, the rants, the promises (I’m never going there again!) they feel once they’re safe and sound.


*I could be misremembering which street here. 7th? 11th? It was a long time ago. But I think you get the point.