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?

19 comments:

Julie Johnstone said...

I've never really thought about it Clarissa. But now that I am, I think the plot in its most skeletal form always comes first for me. I think of a situation, and then I come up with who I will throw into that conflict. I love your idea about putting the most unlikely person in a setting, though. I'm going to try this.

Zach and Sarah Baker said...

Great post, Clarissa. I'm still developing my process, but I think I usually start with one scene in my head and flesh the entire book out from there. :) Sarah

AvonLadyJerrica said...

I have no idea, Clarissa! LOL! I think it varies - sometimes it's a character. Maybe I've met someone who is such a personality that I need to base a character on them. Or I visit a place and know I need to have a story set there. Sometimes it's the story idea in its skeletal form, as Julie said. Like you, I'm a pantser, so everything is always different, always changing for me in my process.

Dawn Marie Hamilton said...

Hi Clarissa, Enjoyed your post. I'm mostly a pantser too. I get my inspiration from lots of different places. For my manuscript, Just Beyond the Garden Gate, I was traveling on business in Brussels and saw a whisky ad with a buff Highlander. The setting Scotland, the hero a Highland chief, the heroine a burned out business consultant. With Sea Panther I wanted to write a vampire story and was reading The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard so part of the story is set in Jamaica with pirates. :)

Catherine Gayle said...

Clarissa, I think it is fascinating that you start with the setting. For me, the setting sort of comes along as part of the plotting process. But then, I'm a plotter, not a pantser. I usually start with a scene, even sometimes just a tiny little scene, and then go to character.

Donna Cummings said...

Clarissa, I love how the "what if" thinking got started -- that's what I find so fascinating about writing, how it just comes out of a random thought or observation.

And whenever I think I have a handle on my "writing process" it morphs into something else for the next book. LOL I'm a total pantser, but this current WIP seems to be pantsing itself in a different fashion than usual. I just hold on and see where it takes me! LOL

Melissa Dawn Harte said...

Clarissa,
I think mine come from a variety of places, it can be a character, a setting, or a plot. So many things will trigger an idea for me, I've got a list a mile long of stories waiting to be told lol. Interesting theory on breaking out of a writers block is to change the setting. You know you may be right and I'm going to try that one day. Great post!

B. A. Binns said...

I usually have a plot outline when I begin, but mostly I start with strong characters who have complex backstories and loads of emotional baggage. I put those characters in different situations and see how they react. Based on their reactions I may tweak their backstory or the plot points until I get the reaction and emotional development I want. Then I'm ready to write. Setting for me is just a part of the plot. For example, the book I just finished, Minority of One takes place in the winter, the snowy landscape became an integral part of the story and I could not rewrite it for a balmy summer setting if I had to without making it an entirely diffrent story. Damaged Goods takes a city boy back to his southern roots and wouldn't work anywhere else. And my debut novel, PULL is located around a big city high school, a cramped apartment, and a major construction site. The events simply couldn't happen anywhere else in the world or with any other two people than David and "The Dare."

Angi Morgan said...

>>>Pick a setting. Any setting. Choose the character who is the least adapted to live in that setting.<<<

What a cool concept. For me, the opening scene comes to me and rarely changes. My current book I wrote myself into a corner three or four times...but that opening chapter never changed. It's always opening scene, name the characters, write chapter one, then figure out what's really going on.

Strange how the mind works.
Pantzers Unite!!!

~~Angi

Clarissa Southwick said...

Wow. Thanks for all the fantastic comments. Who knew there were so many pantsters out there? Now I have to go hunt for all those fantastic books you mentioned...

Hope Ramsay said...

Hi Clarrisa,

I am a plotter. I usually have characters and conflicts and plot points in mind.

However, setting is always very important to me, and I guess I never really thought about how important until I read your blog. I think, actually, I probably think about setting before I even get to the rest, especially if I'm working on a fantasy where world-building is important.

Of course world building can be important in contemporary romance. My series of books coming out starting next year, are very setting specific. And the setting--a small town in South Carolina--is almost like a character in the book.

Joanne said...

Clarissa,
I am very much a pantser, too. But if I think about it, and start to analyze, I would say characters always come first for me.

Mona Risk said...

Clarissa, I get my inspiration from the setting, from places that I visited and then imagine a plot in it.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I am a panster who has no idea where my stories come from. An idea pops into my head and as I write the story opens, the characters help to keep me on the right path and I end up where I want to be - except for my current story. I was 4000 words short and my CPs told me I didn't have enough conflict. I am halfway through revising and am stuck because it is no longer the story I pictured from the beginning. It feels fractured to me. Now I am avoiding it, waiting for my muse to kick me in the backside with a new idea to turn it around. :(

Angelique Armae said...

Before I can really get into a book, I have to know who my hero and heroine are and a basic idea of plot. I'm sort of in the middle of a plotter and a pantzer LOL!

Joan Leacott said...

Hi Clarissa, My first book started with a scene, my second with a single sentence, my third with the title. Setting is an important element that can't be overlooked. Great suggestions to get through a saggy middle.

Erin Kelly said...

I'll be sure to tell you my process when I figure it out, lol! To me, I guess the setting is a character, so it all kind of forms together... I think! Next time, I will really have to analyze how it goes :)

Mary McCall said...

Hi Clarissa:
I'm one of those who can have anything spark a scene from a setting or an event or a joke I overhear. I just have to be open to everything. But it's usually my characters who tell me how my story should go.

Marilu Mann said...

I love love love setting. My 2nd book received more than one judge and reviewer comments about the setting being a character. :)