Tuesday, October 1, 2019

2019 October - Setting—The Layout

This is Part 10 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings 
◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved


Geography can encompass a world or a galaxy, yet, as you've learned from previous posts, it's best to limit a setting. This means the setting will be a small, but ever so important, piece of that world or galaxy. For instance, the bridge of a space ship cruising the galaxy, or the bedroom of an old Victorian house on a hill, or maybe a rabbit hole in a forest where a fairy is visiting.

Setting should be thought of as an island from which there is no escape and which forces characters to interact (either willingly or unwillingly) with the environment or with other characters (or beings, or entities, etc.).

Geographic limits work to logically tie the story's scenes together from the world overview down to the protagonist's kitchen sink (where he or she might be scrubbing a lasagna pan unaware they are a madman's target). 

Because a scene's settings is so important, a wise writer will search for a picture that helps them visualize what's in the setting and exactly where things are. If a photo isn't helpful, at least draw or sketch a diagram of the room or building. Again, that sketch helps a writer visualize the setting. Included in that sketched setting will be props and other details (like light sources, entries and exits, etc.).

Here is an exercise that I've had my students do: 

1. pick a scene from your story
2. draw or sketch the floor plan for that scene's setting
3. draw or write in the props (what decorates the walls, the furniture, the machinery, technology, etc.)
4. mark the light sources and shadows
5. mark the entrances and exits to that setting
6. denote colors of walls, flooring, etc.

Now, have someone read back your text concerning that scene. While they read the words, walk your character through the setting diagram (or picture or sketch). You may be surprised to find that what you imagined was not what was written onto the page. For example, finding the protagonist exiting into a closet instead of the front door. Or, why did your protagonist go all the way into a dark room to turn on a table lamp when there was a light switch right inside the doorway that they could have turned on? (Both of these examples came from my students and is used with their permission.)

Which brings me to props—those items that not only decorate a scene but which come in handy for the characters to interact with as the characters move around and, in particular, handle. Such interaction with props means you can write "beats" instead of using "he said" or "she said" speech tags. More on props next month. 

Above all else, whether you narrow your setting down by using drawings, sketches, or pictures, remember to think about and include the wonder of your world. And be sure to show it through the narrating character, who should be your protagonist because he or she is profoundly affected by that setting and only has the items in that setting to work with.

**** Next Month: 2019 November - Props

****Nanowrimo - good luck to those embarking on a month of writing, writing, writing!

And to make that an even better draft—or to self-edit it when you've completed the story, get 

Great Reviews, likeThe more I read this book and note all the steps I need to revise my YA novel, the more I learn about how to better write my book in the first place. This is a fabulous book that every writer should have on their reference bookshelves!  -Kathy E.

Available at Amazon.com and other booksellers

Sunday, September 1, 2019

2019 September - Setting as Character

This is Part 9 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings
 © 2019 All Rights Reserved

Setting can become like a character, or the focal character will refer to and be convinced that the setting or an element of their setting is like a person. Character as setting is also a staple trope of fiction.

For instance, The Spaceship (or space station) is like a large ocean liner. It breaks down at the most inopportune moment. And if the chief engineer or other fix-it person sweet talks it (or threatens to send it to the junk yard), the ship (or station) starts working again—and often saves the crew's lives.

However, don't confuse this with a Sapient Ship (one that thinks and talks like HAL in A Space Odyssey or V'ger from Star Trek or a Living Ship like Moya, the leviathan starship of Farscape. Such ships can wise and insightful or downright dastardly.

And don't forget about other setting transports, like cars, trucks, boats, airships, etc. Think Transformers or even Herbie the Volkswagen Beetle.   

Then there is The City trope. The City is seen by the focal character as a living organism, perhaps a hive of millions that are forever changing The City's landscape and subsystems, building, expanding, or even tearing things down. 

The City might be a magical forest land, swamp, or mountain in a fantasy realm.

Another type of setting trope is The Entity (that which is perceived or known or inferred to have its own distinct existence and can be living or nonliving. The Entity can be an alien species. Aliens can be humanoid or beasts. The Entity can be robots or machines (computers). Like human beings, some might be good, others not-so-good, and still others truly evil. Much will depend on the roll The Entity plays in the story. 

However, when it comes to setting-as-a-character details, take the time to really think about the origins of that particular setting-as-a-character. Do the same for The Entity, those aliens, robots, or beasts that are part of the story world. After all, each is the product of some environment or some technology or some wizardry. You-the-writer need to know this, but the reader likely only needs to know the bare bones (ten percent) of it all.

And, as always, continue to strive to make the setting as believable and as logical as possible to the reader.

***WRITER'S ROAD TRIP #7, October 12, 2019, at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, Erie PA (across from Waldameer Park).  I'm doing two workshops at this one-day mini-conference for writers. The workshops are:  the "3-Act Structure" of story and "Dynamic Dialogue."  

This event is hosted by Pennwriters Area 1 (For information to - https://www.Pennwriters.org ) or visit the event's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/WritersRoadTrip

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Thursday, August 1, 2019

2019 August — Old Worlds, New Worlds — Medieval, Steampunk, Futuristic

This is Part 8 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings ◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots. — Marcus Garvey

In this segment on world building, we'll delve a bit into medieval, steampunk, and futuristic world building. In these three areas, believability is paramount. So let's begin with— 


What medieval readers dislike the most is a story filled with inaccuracies of the story's era, histories, and setting details. Often it is the simple things that foul up a read. Take pockets. 

Because I am an SCA member (https://www.sca.org), and I sew my own costumes, I became aware that pockets as we know them today, didn't come into vogue until the 1600's. So what did the peasant or aristocrat use for pockets? Depends on the era. And a wise writer will embrace the adage of "Don't assume. Know (or look it up)." 

Keep in mind there are a lot of reenactors and reenactments held. Those enthusiasts know their era and how to replicate things of their era. So, if you write historic, go to such events and demonstrations. And do any other research that's necessary so you discover the gems of attire, tools, etc. that you can insert into your story.


Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy fiction. It incorporates technology and tastefully creative augmentation and enhancement of designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. Think iron, gears, clockwork figures, mechanical devices and machines. 

The setting for steampunk is usually the British Victorian era or the American Wild West. Sometimes it might be in a future or fantasy world that uses steam power. Browse images on Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com) for  visuals. And don't forget the character's costumes will have leather, clockwork devices, etc. ( https://www.pinterest.com/catherinemclean/steampunk/).


The definition of futuristic is something that has to do with the future, or is ahead of the current times. Examples would be The War of the Worlds, Foundation, Ender's Game, or Dune.

The setting will often be a different planet or our own Earth decades or centuries in the future. Writing a future world will entail world-building that provides some chronological base from which Earth changed and which justifies what Earth evolved into for the future story.

This means paying attention to government, society, tropes, religions and beliefs, morals, science, technology, and so on. Attire, tool, weapons, modes of transportation and communication are also factors to consider in order to make the future believable.

Once more let me stress that it's imperative you, the writer, the author, make your medieval, steampunk, or futuristic world setting believable. That way you ensure the reader is never taken out of the story world or questions what's going on.

And once more, it's about knowing what is in the real world, the true histories of a historical time period, how mechanical or scientific devices work (or should function). For Steampunk and Futuristic, it's also about extrapolating the known to arrive at possibilities that can be believed.

Coming in September - SETTING AS CHARACTER 


Monday, July 1, 2019

2019 July - Science or Magic? Fantasy or Reality?

Magic is something that happens that appears to be impossible. What I call 'illusion magic' uses laws of science and nature that are already known. Real magic uses laws that haven't yet been discovered. — Doug Henning

As I've said many times, a writer must never forget that readers are logical people. Humans want logic and order in their lives, not chaos. 

Yes, readers want to escape to fantastical venues, story worlds that are larger than life, which means making the unbelievable seem so logical and "realistic" that the reader is very willing to suspends their disbelief. Make one mistake in a logical premise and the reader will scoff at the absurdity and likely not finish reading the story.

Let's look at an example of, say, rains that lasts five years (rain every day). The logical reader is flummoxed. How can that be? 

If a science fiction story, did some rain-making machine go haywire?

If a fantasy world has a rain forest, does it rain in spurts once or twice a day? Just enough to keep the forest lush and beautiful?

If a magical world, was a curse set upon the land for rain and gloom?

Let's tackle the toughest scenario of rain for five years. How can you prove to the reader that it can very well rain every day for 5 years? Answer— by trolling the Internet or your local library for facts like this one at  https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/08/meghalaya-the-wettest-place-on-earth/100797/ (The photos alone would do a fantasy world proud!) 

Now extrapolate what you've discovered and learned and apply it to your story world's setting dynamics.

You might think that because you're writing fiction, you can do anything you want. After all, it is YOUR story. The problem comes with selling that premise or story idea to a reader (or editor or agent). 

To get ideas for your story world's premise, be it scientific, fantastical, or magical, I recommend a visit to the children's section of a library for books on fairy tales, legends, myths, fables. Once you arm yourself with such knowledge, ideas may come to light so you can prove to a reader how fantastical, yet believable, your story world is.

As long as you're delving into possibilities, consider what is complex that lies beneath the surface. In other words, what's hidden that can be spotlighted for the good of the story's setting and the character's world?

Other questions to ask are—

* What's the "marvelous?

* What's magnificent? 

* What's astonishing? 

* What's grand?

* What's wonderful?

* What's the awe factor for the world?

Make your world so believable that the reader will never question the unreality of it.

August's topic about setting and world building will be -  Old Worlds, New Worlds — Medieval, Steampunk, Futuristic

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Saturday, June 1, 2019

2019 - June - World Building - Governments, Caste Systems

This is Part 6 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings ◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved - Catherine E. McLean www.CatherineEmclean.com / www.WritersCheatSheets.com

Good government is one of the most important factors in economic growth 
and social well-being.
—Joe Lonsdale 

In the overall world-view of a story's setting, there is some type of law-and-order system, a governing body or governing individual, that affects the protagonist and other characters in a story. The governance will have a psychological, social, and political influence that will be reflected in the setting and other aspects of a story. 

Yes, we're talking about a "government."

But what exactly is government? It is defined as "social relations involving intrigue to gain authority or power." 

Types of governments and governing bodies include utopian, dystopian, capitalism, dictatorship, communism, fascism, racism, theocracy, totalitarianism, militarism, plutocracy, and more.

Caste systems run the gamut from family units, to warrior classes (like Samurai) to hunter-gatherer tribes to pharaohs and kings, princes and emperors, alien (extraterrestrial) and magical.

In creating a story world, a lot of thought and research may go into the society the story's characters must function in. Yet, no matter how much research a writer does or how much pre-writing is done about a governing body of that story world, the reader won't need but a tenth of it. After all, the reader wants a story, not a historic tome. 

A writer should strive to present the effects, both positive and negative, of a society's laws, norms, phobias, morals, etc. while the story moves along. The trick is to do it without resorting to an information dump. 

The most effective way to get the necessary elements on the page will be through one specific person, and often one of the high-ranking minions of the government end up being the antagonist. For example, a king or the chief of a warring tribe out to gain territory or riches. But it could also be a bureau chief of a government body (like the CIA) or some rich CEO. 

By exercising all the clout and power at their disposal, such antagonists become an enemy to the protagonist. And that, of course, forces the protagonist to either go along or go against the reining presence.

The conflict between the antagonist and the protagonist helps the reader better experience the story on a more personal and emotional level. For example, the IRS stops being initials for a government bureau and a faceless but oh-so-powerful entity when one zealous agent (who has a name, an agenda, and a goal) deliberately targets the protagonist. That causes considerable turmoil for the protagonist, forcing them to take the challenge, persevere, and change the status quo. 

In a war or great battle of militaries, it's not the entire war that unfolds, but one person's role in that war. That's because war is too large a scale, and the story isn't about the war itself (no matter how interesting the aspects of that war are). A wise writer will write about a small segment of that war from a specific Point of View and Viewpoint—usually that of the protagonist. 

Whether it's medieval fight using swords or a modern war fought with drones, it's best to limit the field of action to a specific battle site setting. For example, it's not Platoon Bravo in Sector 4, it's Private Brown, terrified, feeling the impact of the noise of bullets and grenades, the cumbersomeness of his gear, the weight of his weapon, who is slogging up a hill to take out an enemy fortification and seeing his comrades fall. It's the war (and the character's inner battle) up close and personal for the reader.

Again, a story's setting is impacted by a particular ruling government body or a caste or tribal system, which in turn affects or influences the primary story characters' words, thoughts, and deeds. 

As always, add only what is absolutely necessary for verisimilitude to keep the reader engaged.

Next month World Building continues with -  July 2019 - Science or Magic?  Fantasy or Reality?
Join me at my Facebook Author Page https://www.facebook.com/CatherineEmcleanauthor/

Announcing: February 2020, month-long online course hosted by Pennwriters on "Make That Pitch" - learn how to effectively create a tag line, query paragraphs, synopses, and back cover copy.

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