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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