Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Starting with the Setting
Last week my crit partners were discussing which comes first, the plot or the characters? Everyone seemed to have a process, which they were capable of explaining in great detail. Except for me. The character-or-plotter-first question left me completely befuddled.
For the record, I am a total pantser. I see scenes play out in my head and I write what I see. Any other method leaves me confused. I can only fill out character interviews and plot points after I’ve finished writing the book. I’ve always been a little embarrassed when other writers talk about process because I didn’t have one.
Until last weekend, when we vacationed in the mountains of Idaho. I was watching kayakers fly over the whitewater on the Payette River when the wheels began turning in my head.
Who was the first guy to try to navigate that stretch of the river? What horrible thing was chasing after him to make him decide he’d rather chance the rapids than stick around and get caught? What if he wasn’t a man but a woman? And what kind of woman would voluntarily jump into that freezing river?
As the pictures began to form in my head, I realized I do have a process, and it begins with the setting. Once I know where and when my characters lived, everything else falls into place.
From characterization to plot and dialogue, every element of the story is influenced by its place in space and time. While it’s true that some goals, like the pursuit of love or money, are universal, the obstacles and conflicts will vary based on setting. The same character, dropped into a different locale, will behave differently.
Setting doesn’t just decorate the story. It is the story.
If you are stuck writing a sagging middle, try changing the setting. It will instantly liven things up.
If you are staring at a blank page and have no idea where to start, try this: Pick a setting. Any setting. Choose the character who is the least adapted to live in that setting. Now you have instant conflict, instant story. That’s why the fish out of water story never gets old.
I would love to hear your process stories. What comes first? The characters, plot, or setting? Do you like to mix it up, or do you always set your stories in the same time and place?