Exercise the Fourth:
How to Introduce Setting over at Read to Write Stories is an exercise I stumbled across while I was searching last November for description tips during nanowrimo.
Since I’ve always introduced Setting as that dull friend I didn’t really want to bring to the party but my mother said I should since Setting doesn’t know many people and its mom and my mom are in the same book club….
I thought, hey, I would love some tips on how to do a better job.
Read to Write Stories breaks down an excerpt from Marc Watkins’ short “Two Midnights in a Jug” with instructions on how to recreate the structured description the author uses.
“There’s almost never any story inherent in place. Concrete is merely concrete, and trees don’t care what happens around them.”
See! Your purple trees and Dwarven mines don’t matter! (unless they specifically inform Character or Conflict) Validation! I like this exercise already.
The Basic Premise:
I jumped on this exercise because of its parallels to what I was taught in screenwriting classes. I find it easier to learn new things if part of that new thing is something I already know. Cheating? Probably. Whatevs.
Quick screenwriting lesson:
Start wide to establish setting ⇒ Move in to familiarize a viewer in the space we’re going to be acting in ⇒ Close in on the subject of the scene’s conflict
World ⇒ Stage ⇒ Character
This zooming in is the focus of this exercise.
A common way to introduce a setting in a script is to start with a wide shot that encloses all of the space. It’s called an “establishing shot.”
For examples, think the opening image of the townhouse of Full House, or the aerial shot of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. Screenwriters know the human brain will assume everything following this establishing shot takes place somewhere within this larger location.
They then narrow the location down to a single room or smaller area. So, the Tanner’s kitchen, or the Hand of the King’s chambers. In this smaller view, we start to understand the character through the influence they’ve had on the space.
We remain distant enough from the subject in order to see their surroundings, but we’re close enough to observe any objects that would relay character (Tyrion’s table is littered with empty wine bottles), or the impending conflict. (There’s a coupon for a new mullet mailed to “our neighbors at” the Tanner house sitting on the kitchen counter. The fight over who will get to redeem it is imminent.)
Disclaimer: I’ve seen very little of Full House, but I had a friend in middle school I used to watch it with. Her name was Michelle and she was the youngest of three sisters. It all makes sense now.
What I do remember was that iconic shot of the townhouse and also that DJ had a kick ass side part thing going on and a ten or so year old me told the lady at supercuts that was what I wanted. She said my face was too round for it to ever actually work.
The last bit of the transition is to move closer to the characters in the setting and their conflict of the day. And with that, we’ve completed the zoom in.
World ⇒ Stage ⇒ Character
I’m eager to apply this idea to prose. It’s broken down into 9 steps. Here we go.
Step 1 – Choose the Place
Easy enough. I’ll be focusing on the setting for a short story I’m working on with floating sky cities!
Step 2 – Brainstorm the Physical Setting
“Write down the basics of the place’s geography, landscape, and physical features. If you’re describing an interior space, the same ideas still apply except that you’re describing floor plans and architecture rather than landscape.”
There’s an additional note about how it’s important to get all of these down now since your brain may not give you details in the best order for the final prose of the piece.
I like that this bit was included. I learned a lot about the value of writing everything possible and then picking from that later for a stronger final line when I did Mary Robinette Kowal’s exercise.
Writing for thirty minutes about one room was painful, but, in the end, valuable. It’s the same idea here. Who knows if Tyrion’s empty wine bottles or the burned down candles from late night reading will fit first into your prose.
We can’t know! Write it all.
Also think about details on various levels, zoomed way out to zoomed way in. (city, building, room) This isn’t stated in the directions, but since I can see into the future, I know that we’ll need varying levels of proximity to our final subject.
“It’s a city on a floating rock.”
“It has long noodly like tendrils in a fan around the base to collect solar energy.”
“The architecture is reminiscent of Victorian Gothic style with spires, towers and high windows.”
“Evelyn’s lab is large and full of tables heaping with notes and beakers of liquid and tubes running all over.”
“One side houses her large stash of whirling machinery. Think blinking lights, gears spinning etc.”
“It’s the attic of their estate home and has a vaulted slanted ceiling. One wall is a giant stained glass window with a door that leads out to her balcony.”
Step 3 – Brainstorm the Tonal Setting
“Now, write about the sense that you have of the place: cultured/backward, beautiful/ugly, freeing/oppressive, spiritual/dead, exciting/dull, etc. Try to explain why you have this sense.”
Same idea as above but we’re going for the mood and feel of the setting instead of concrete descriptors. That peppy, sunny San Francisco townhouse full of mullets and teased bangs has a certain mood and I want to feel it.
“The outside city feels open, free. (It’s flying with little noodle limbs. How is that not happy looking?)”
“There needs to be a contrast with Evelyn’s lab which is really just a well stocked prison.”
Step 4 – The People
“Finally, describe the people who occupy this place: smart/dumb, happy/sad, cosmopolitan/provincial, motivated/depressed, etc. When you think of these people, what actions, habits, or things first come to mind?”
For the Tyrion thread, it’s King’s Landing so I first think of alcohol and scheming.
For my exercise, I hadn’t really thought about the outside culture. I’d been focusing on the main characters. Let’s see what I come up with…
“Um? Desperate to survive? They launched parts of their cities into the sky to get away from a plague. That means they are probably practical, and resourceful as a culture, but there’s got to be some hopefulness too.”
Step 5 – Write the Paragraph
“At last, let’s write the paragraph.”
Yes, let’s. Is that all there is to this step? Do I need to sign a consent form? Is the experiment that dangerous!?
Warning: Writing description may cause sore fingers, the desire to kick people you don’t know, and DEATH!
The instructions say “paragraph,” but the excerpt from Watkins has eight sentences. We’ll try and keep to approximately the same pattern for the sake of the exercise. Feel free to deviate.
Step 6 – Wide Frame or “Establishing Shot” – 2 Sentences
“Start with a wide frame: show us the largest view of the place that makes sense.”
This quote describes the first step of this:
World ⇒ Stage ⇒ Character
What is our Establishing Shot? We’re told to pick the largest view relevant, something that is encompassing but “not the blue speck of planet Earth in the black universe.” (UNLESS you’re rocking some space station sci fi!)
This is what I mentioned above with the wide shot of the Tanner house or the aerial view of King’s Landing.
For mine, I need to establish the city is floating so I’ll go with a more “King’s Landing” scope.
“The city of CITY floated far above earth’s surface, its towering buildings and spires reaching even higher toward the sun. The (noodle things) flitted around the great hunk of rock propelling it forward while soaking up the abundant sunlight.”
Step 7 – Zoom in – 4 Sentences
“Zoom into the specific place where the story is set. Do this in no more than four sentences.”
Now the middle part:
World ⇒ Stage ⇒ Character
There’s a blurb in the following step about how Watkins started interweaving the final of the three steps (people/character) into this middle section and you should too. That’s where Tyrion’s empty bottles and wrinkled maps and burned down candles come in. They are, undeniably part of the visual setting, but they are parts that also convey who the occupant of this space is without actually describing the character.
For mine, I’m focusing in on Evie’s lab. It’s her space and thus, needs to inform the reader of the type of person she is. We also have to get there from the wide shot, so have each sentence get gradually closer.
“Off to one side, where the towers rose tallest and the finest of the houses boasted miniscule front lawns, sat the LASTNAME family estate. It rose up into the clouds, its back resting right along the edge of the world’s perimeter. The abyss that lay beyond this edge, the nothingness that separated CITY from the earth it had once been a part of, was the view from Evelyn LASTNAME’s lab balcony. Her lab served as both sacred solitude and prison, because among her tables of notes and whirling machines hid a cure for the plague CITY had attempted to run from.”
Steps 8 & 9 – The Character of the People – 2 Sentences
Step 8 is an actual step and 9 is more of a tip. We’ll add them both now.
“Transition to the people. Notice how Marc Watkins does this with the phrase ‘folks call trailer parks…’”
“Drive home the sense that you have of this place with the people’s actions or habits.”
These two steps talk about the last part:
World ⇒ Stage ⇒ Character
Who are the important figures? What are they like? What sorts of conflicts are they facing?
DJ is a teenager and isn’t sure her hair works which is a big deal when you have to go to high school everyday.
How do you look, DJ?
Evie is a scientist working on a cure to save her dying world.
Some of this context I’ve established in the other sections. We know she and her peers have escaped a dying planet because of the description of their noodly floating city in the establishing shot. We know Evie’s a scientist because we set the stage of her lab. All of it should work together to inform us of who this person is, what they want to achieve, and what spot in their world they occupy.
Let’s do our last two sentences about her surrounding culture.
“But Evelyn’s small world would only see madness, madness at the thought of one woman in a tower succeeding where even the joint efforts of thousands of skybound people had failed.
Reputation ruled on a floating city that had been home to the same small set of surviving humans for generations and Evelyn could not confront that (notion) until she had proof of her sanity.”
Let’s look at our tenets:
- Do prompts, even if they are scary or seem lame – Yup. This one didn’t take much bravery, but gold star.
- Get our descriptive prose to convey three things: Character, Conflict, and Setting – I really struggled with this one. Part of the reason, I think, is because it is ALL description. I didn’t have any character dialogue or actions to drive me. I don’t think I would use this exercise to come up with actual prose for a draft, but I would use it for brainstorming. (more on that below)
- Practice mindful practice – Check. Write up done!
I ran into some issues with this one’s organization. While the analysis of Watkins’ excerpt is great, the exercise doesn’t quite fall in line with it. I used it a little differently than intended and had to make some adjustments on how I went through it. (i.e. The analysis revolves around the three stages of zooming in but in the earlier steps, it isn’t explicit that we should be brainstorming on different zoom levels as well.)
On the plus side, this exercise reiterated the importance of “throw away writing.” Like the Room exercise, there was a lot of information typed that never made it into the draft, but served to inform the final product.
It’s an important part of practice and also why I’m not a fan of vomiting the first thing you think of onto a page and calling it gold. You don’t need to describe every purple tree, just the one that fell on the Protagonist’s cat that spurred him to enact vengeance on all flora in the universe.
That being said, it may take describing half a dozen or so trees before you’ve got an excerpt worth sharing, one that makes me me sympathize with the protagonist and take up an axe.
For instance, I didn’t have any broader cultural attitudes in mind when I started. The twist of “well, of course rumors and reputation would be important in such a tiny world” came up as I was brainstorming and rounded out the last part of the exercise.
I decided to do this exercise because I’m jumping into a new work and didn’t have a secure hold on the surrounding world it took place in. (I’ve got all the anguish meticulously plotted out though! #priorities) And while I may not use the excerpt in my draft, it was an excellent exercise in figuring out the culture my protagonist is a part of.
“When you finish this paragraph, you may be ready to write a story. Or at least you’ll have a few good sentences about setting.”
Next time we’re doing an exercise I made up to see if it works. If it doesn’t, it was inspired by a question from Jimmy-Jam, so we can always blame failure on him.