Friday, February 1, 2019

2019 - February - Setting Tropes

This is Part 2 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings
Catherine E. McLean ◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved

Setting is the bedrock of your story. 
If you choose a real-world backdrop, 
be certain you get your facts straight. 
— Lynn Flewelling

Be it contemporary, historical, magical, science fiction, or fantasy, the setting details of a story must suit the world not distort the world. 

Nor should those details be unbelievable to the reader.

When a new writer decides to play God-of-Creation, what they don't realize is what they've created likely has been done before, often many times, even to the point of being a trope.

What is a trope? It's a common or overused theme or device that has become a cliche. 

Not all tropes are bad because in some genres there are standard tropes that readers like and which never seem to bore a reader or go out of style. To use an old cliche, it's better to look before you leap by doing some research, or google a search, to see if your story idea and setting premise falls into a good or not so good story or setting trope.

You could start with some TV and movie tropes at the website below. Then ask yourself— Does my story's setting or premise fall into one of the tropes? If it does, what can I do to revitalize the trope, make it different, interesting, or give it a wow factor?

When it comes to revitalizing a story or setting trope, there are two basic ways to handle it:

1) Change the trope in a new and fresh way. Of course, you first must know what components of your setting will tip readers off to it being a worthwhile trope, something they're familiar with. Then hone in on what does the NOT EXPECT? Knowing the reader's expectations, you can change that expectation and thus keep the reader's attention.

Of course, in the process, you may also find a better direction for a plot point to take. For example, the legend of King Arthur. You would think this legend would have been done to death, but no, there is currently a new twist to the tale with the movie The Kid Who Would Be King. A new setting (modern world) and an old setting (medieval) combination. 

2) Switching Fantasy for Reality or vice versa. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. So, what if your fantastical setting premise were not a figment of the imagination but real? That it actually exists? Can it change or complicate things? Hopefully it complicates things, adds a freshness that wows a jaded reader, editor, or agent.

Although the above methods sound simple enough, they are not easy to execute. 

There are also other aspects of setting tropes. For example when a new writer ignores their story's world or setting or treats the setting as something static, a mere backdrop done with a huge watercolor brush. The reader just gets a foggy-vague look at the setting instead of clear imagery. Which means the reader is not anchored sufficiently in the world.

A good example of ignoring a setting is in dialogue where "heads talk." That is, two characters are in conversation and nothing else is going on—no setting props are in use or being handled, no wind, weather, smells, sounds, etc. that add realism and validity to the narrative. By the way, readers consider Heads Talking as boring stuff (and it is always wise to avoid boring a reader).

Another type of "boring stuff" goes to the other extreme—The Information Dump. This is where the writer dumps in information that they found fascinating when they discovered it during their research of a geographic area, its topography, climate, soil, vegetation, and fauna. So the writer shares their zeal by expounding for paragraphs and paragraphs, describing ad infinitum.

In reality, the reader wants to skip over all that text to get to the good stuff of action and drama. [Refer to last month's post and The Story Iceberg.]

The best way to avoid a genre trope is to read 100 or more books in the genre you want to write in. Not only will you avoid plot tropes but you'll also become a wiser writer by learning how other authors handled world-building, landscapes, and props.

********** March's Topic — The Protagonist POV-Viewpoint of Their World

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019


Part 1 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings 
◆ Catherine E. McLean - © 2019 All Rights Reserved

Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else . . . Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?                                — Eudora Welty

A story's setting is more than world-building. 

A story's setting is a key aspect of fiction, along with plot, character, theme, and style. However, a story's setting provides the backdrop, the "theater stage" of an environment, the time (or era) that creates or reinforces the story's circumstances, mood, tone, and believability.  

A story's setting can run the gauntlet from the wide view of a sci-fi or fantasy universe to historical and contemporary eras— and on down to scenes where there are actual props for the Protagonist and Antagonist, or other characters, to handle or use.

Often the first thing a novice writer is told to do when opening a story is to anchor a reader in a specific place and a specific time (era, year, time of day or night, season, etc.).

Obviously, the anchor should be done as quickly as possible, ideally on page one, like within the first 250 words. However, that anchor is not to be a dump of information or lengthy description (nothing exceeding 60 words in any one spot) or it will turn off the reader. The best anchors are succinct details rich with imagery that are woven into the action or narrative.

Let's backtrack a moment and take a look at the various definitions of the word "setting"— 

the context and environment in which something is set
the state of the environment in which a situation exists
the arrangement of scenery and properties (props) that represent the place where a play, movie, or story is enacted
the set of facts or circumstances that surround a situation or event
the physical position of something

In other words, setting is a broad topic. So broad that for 2019 all the monthly topics for this Writer's Cheat Sheet Blog will deal with an aspect of a story's world or what is entailed for a "theater stage" on which a scene plays out. 

Regarding "world-building" — The very word suggests creating a fictional world. When writing science fiction or fantasy, care must be taken to create believable environments so the reader suspends their disbelief. That means striving to make the reader curious or to wow a jaded reader with something new, different, fresh, or fantastic.

Historical writers need to know their era. Which means research and triple checking dates for inventions and discoveries as well as conflicts, wars, politics, holidays, and religious events. Always at the back of the historical writer's mind is the knowledge that their audience knows the era well and those readers do not tolerate authors' mistakes.

Contemporary storytellers often think that because the story's time period is present day, or takes place in the writer's life-time, they don't have to create a setting—which can be true. However, the drawback to such thinking is getting the facts or a date wrong. Like the historical reader, a contemporary reader will pick up on errors and the writer's credibility nosedives. 

Regardless of genre, having a written record (of research, quotes, excerpts from biographies, etc.) helps immensely in the drafting and the revision-editing stages. Consider, too, that having visual records (photographs, drawings, sketches, etc.) makes it far easier to accurately describe something so the reader can visualize the same image. All in all, having such records-files ensures accuracy and, more importantly, believability and credibility.

You can create such records by setting up and using a file that organizes the various aspects of a story's world. That file can be done with a computer file or with some type of notebook, ring-binder, etc. Subdividing the file with indexes or having specific headers, sections, or separate files enables a writer to quickly locate, add, or update information. Such subdivisions are especially useful when writing a sequel or a new story that takes place in the original world's setting.

A writer can go online and google free images of setting forms or find blog posts of what others use for their story world building or setting pages. As I've said many times, don't take a form verbatim. Instead take the ideas presented, the information or questions that you most need, and make your own "cheat sheets" for the way you tell a story. 

Of course it sounds grand to be a God of Creation for a fictional universe that is a story. The trouble is, a writer can get carried away with the creation of said world and spend countless hours generating details that never play into the story (and the story never gets written). 

Lastly, remember, a story's setting or a scene's setting must help develop the story's drama, urgency, and keep the plot moving along. After all, a story is about one interesting character (who is the protagonist) facing or about to face an interesting problem (dilemma, trouble, or danger) in an interesting setting. 

********February's Topic— Setting Tropes.********

Mark your Calendars for this month-long short story course. (Permission to forward is granted---tell your fellow writers!)

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Saturday, December 1, 2018

December 2018 - Short Story or Vignette (What's the difference and who cares?)

Anthology of Short Stories
Short Story or Vignette?  

Okay, let's start with definitions to make it clear what each is.

A short story is a story with a fully developed theme, a beginning, middle, and ending but which is significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel. A Short Story has a protagonist facing off with an antagonist (which can be a who or a what and involves a problem with dire consequences). 

Please note that this type of short story is called The Developed Short Story (DSS). If you master the DSS, you can write a novel because the only difference between the short story and novel is length [50,000 words and up] and scope [number of characters who have Point of View (POV) and Viewpoint as well as subplots or underplots].

A vignette, on the other hand, is a brief, evocative description, account, or episode, or even a portrait of someone (think character sketch). Vignettes are "slices of life" which may have a moral or point but which do not have a beginning, middle, and resolution. Often vignettes are literary prose.

Which is harder to sell or market, the Short Story or the Vignette? Answer: It's the Vignette. 

Which is easiest to write? The Vignette

These days the short story is enjoying a comeback thanks to downloadable short stories, short story collections, short story anthologies, and short stories in audio versions. 

*** Call it Karma or whatever, but last year, when I posted the schedule for this year's WCS blog topics, little did I know that come October I would be contacted by Pennwriters and booked to do a workshop on the Developed Short Story.

If you want to write well and tell a marketable short story, give yourself a great Christmas gift — register for the Feb. 1-28 2019  - From Story Spark to Story Done - Let's write a short story.  Details are HERE.

**********JANUARY 2019 TOPIC — SETTING, SETTING, SETTING, Part 1 - A Story's World, an overview

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Merry Christmas!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

November 2018 - — The Inciting Incident (where the story really begins)

For 2018, all the monthly topics have been submitted to me by writers and readers of this blog.

This month's question is— What exactly is "The Inciting Incident?" 

The Inciting Incident is the specific point in the beginning of the story where the protagonist is drawn into solving a problem, dilemma, disaster, trouble, etc. 

For example, in Alice In Wonderland, the spot where Alice sees the White Rabbit is the Inciting Incident. When she saw that rabbit, her curiosity was sparked enough so that she followed the rabbit. 

Now someone might think that Alice falling down the rabbit hole is the Inciting Incident. But it is not. Again, it was her seeing the rabbit and making the decision to go after him that then culminated in her falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. In other words, if she had not seen that rabbit, there would be no story.

Another way to look at the Inciting Incident is to liken it to the domino that falls and which creates a cascade of events that leads to the climax and resolution of the story.

When an idea, premise, what-if, or character, etc. emerges from the imagination, it intrigues a writer. Thus intrigued, the writer writes, penning volumes of words to understand the story world (the setting) and the Protagonist's and Antagonist's personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. 

Please realize that back story, back history, character sketches, scenes to get to know the various character's personalities, figuring out setting details, and other pre-writing will be jumbled into the opening pages of a first draft. 

Only after the draft is completed is it time to look for the tipping point, the Inciting Incident for where the real story begins.

How do you determine where that Inciting Incident really is? 

You ask yourself:

● Where is the point that things truly changed for the Protagonist and which plunged him or her into the new story world of having to deal with some problem, some trouble, some danger, etc. that leads to the climax?


● Where did the Protagonist encounter or confront a White Rabbit, which might be a person, incident, problem, dilemma, danger, etc. — and which is The Trouble that begins that domino effect of events leading to the climax of the story?

Sometimes it's not easy to find the correct Inciting Incident. The hardest time I ever had with finding the Inciting Incident was with my novel Jewels of the Sky. You see, I assumed early on that the death of the Protagonist's (Darq's) grandmother triggered the domino effect.  After a dozen trial-and-error openings that didn't work, I read farther into the story, beyond the pages dealing with the funeral. Then I  realized the real turning point, the real Inciting Incident, was when God picked Darq to test and have her choices determine the fate of her people    a matter of survival or extinction.

I will also confess that most of my story openings are spot on when I draft a work because I'm a Foundation Writer, number three on  the "10 Types of Writers" list. By the way,  if you're curious about what type of writer you tend to be, that list is still available as a free download at

Keep in mind, a writer has only eight seconds to catch a reader's attention with a story's opening. That opening must make the reader curious or intrigued in some way, which captures the reader's attention and compels a reader to read on and turn pages. Make no mistake   The Inciting Incident is the most compelling spot for a story's beginning. Find that spot and then revise for the drama that will hook and pull a reader into your story. 

*****NEXT MONTH'S TOPIC: December 2018 — Short Story or Vignette (what's the difference and who cares)


Feb 1-28, 2019  From Story Spark to Story Done — Let's write a Short story."  This in-depth, hands-on course is hosted by Pennwriters. - Registration details will be forthcoming. 

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Monday, October 1, 2018

October 2018 - How long does it take to become a published author?

For 2018, all the monthly topics have been submitted to me by writers and readers of this blog.

This month's question is
"Is it a matter of talent vs. craft in becoming a published writer?"

Two things about talent— 1) Talent cannot be taught, and 2) talent will take a writer only so far. 

As to the writing craft? Craft can be taught and the devices and techniques can be learned. But—and you knew there was going to be a but, right?—the kicker is that it takes time to learn craft because craft enhances talent and liberates creativity. 

Oddly enough, there are writers with the highest ability and degree of talent but who don't write. And then there are those writers who strive for years to learn story, to learn writing craft, techniques, and devices who succeed as published authors and storytellers. So, what's the difference in the two groups? It's desire and drive.

Or at least that used to be the norm. Actually, these days anyone who writes anything can self-publish overnight. Craft and good storytelling isn't in such an equation. The proof is in the 4,500 books a day that glut the marketplace.

If you want to write well and tell a story well, sell books that readers will thoroughly enjoy, you'll need to understand how much talent you were endowed with and weigh it against your desire to tell stories vs. the quick, overnight fantasy of becoming "a rich and famous author." 

To enthrall readers and sell books means putting in the writing time and learning how to overcome your talent weaknesses. How much time? Figure a million words and The 10,000 Hour Rule.

What is The 10,000 Hour Rule? Simply stated, it takes roughly 10,000 hours of work—hard work—and diligent practice—in any field to become accomplished. This doesn't make you the best, but it certainly does make you highly skilled and savvy.

It doesn't matter if the field is sports (like swimming, dressage, or soccer) or a particular profession (veterinarian, surgeon, or engineer), it takes time to learn skills. It takes time to practice and experiment with techniques and devices. It even takes time to digest the failures because those provide valuable knowledge and insights.

Because there are 144 aspects to a novel, and no one can learn everything overnight, The 10,000 Hour Rule for a writer translates into roughly five years. However, that only makes a writer "accomplished." To make the expert-author league, triple or quadruple that. Yes, there are those one-in-a-billion people who become overnight successes. If you're one of them, more power to you. The rest of us, well, we take the long and winding road to success.

Here's the thing, writers are basically self-taught. They learn by reading how-to books, attending workshops, taking courses, actively interacting (talking) with successful writers, and getting reliable feedback on their works in progress. And they write and write and write. As Sol Stein said, "A writer is someone who cannot not write."

Unfortunately, because of the ease to vanity publish* with Amazon or Smashwords and others, far too many writers skip the learning aspects of fiction and storytelling. What further complicates things these days is that the burden of quality and comprehension falls squarely on the shoulders of the writer. Just ask readers. And don't forget, readers who sample poor-quality stories don't usually buy another book from that author.

So, I encourage you to take the time necessary to learn and become a terrific storyteller.

* To Vanity Publish means paying a company a fee, or full costs, or giving them a percentage of sales to produce books, videos, music, academic journals, or other works. (In my opinion, has for many first-time writers become their vanity publisher.)

~~~~~~~~~~ November 2018 — The Inciting Incident (where the story really begins)