Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It was a dark and stormy night...

The cheesiest and worst opening ever, I know. Yet it does serve its purpose, which is to create the setting. What is setting? The question seems easy doesn't it? It's the location of your story. Duh. But is it really that simple? In a word: No.

Setting, or milieu, is one of the four basic factors that make up every story. When creating a scene, the setting is everything that surrounds the characters; and I mean everything. Here's a list of various aspects of the setting that need to be taken into account in order to create a believable setting:
  • Location: This can be anything from the room your characters are in to the planet they're on. It includes the physical objects nearby as well as the scenic skyline afar off. It is everything the characters will interact with during the scene. If your character is going to get in a bar brawl, the bottle he grabs is a piece of the setting right up until he shatters it on the edge of the bar and points it at his opponent.

    Location is the most common aspect of a story and the one that most people get right... for the most part. It's easy to describe a room your character is in, as well as the objects he or she will need throughout the scene. But what about the scenery? Make sure to include descriptions of items that will set the mood of the scene. This could be the dying embers of the campfire, the meaty scent of the roast in the oven, or the vast collection of family portraits hanging on the walls. These "background" objects go a long way to showing your reader how the setting feels to your characters.
  • Culture: This includes the laws of the land, village customs, city attitudes, the social roles of your character and so on. You can describe a city all the way down to the shape of the cobblestones in the streets, but without some culture your city will be just a flat collection of buildings. If your character is walking down the street, describe the way the citizens around him act. Maybe a couple is arguing loudly outside their home, or a patrol of foot soldiers is making the rounds, eying everyone they pass. The point is, give your locations some personality, some quirks, and some vices. This will bring them more to life than simply describing the buildings reaching for the sky.
  • Environment: Weather can have a strong affect on the scene you set. Is it raining? Sunny? Does the wind nearly blow your characters off their feet, or does the heavy fog obscure everything outside arms length? Weather is a great way to set the mood of your scene. Sunny days will typically portray hope or joy while rain can be depressing or even romantic. Fog is a common way to create an eerie feeling.

    This applies even if you are writing an indoor scene. What's the weather like outside. Does the soft pitter-patter of rain on the tin roof of the shed drive your hiding protagonist insane? Or does the bright rays of sunlight streaming through an open window fill her with hope for the first time in ages?

    But weather is not the only environmental effect to take into consideration. How about day or night? Which season is it? It doesn't even have to be of this planet. The vacuum of space can be a terrifying prospect for your character. Space is cold, lonely, and deadly. If you're a sci-fi author creating a new planet, design some crazy weather or other environmental effects that will fill your readers with wonder and your characters with dread. Have fun with it.
In the end, setting is just as important as your plot, your characters, and your ideas. Take the time to flesh out your world and make it really come to life on the page. Your readers will thank you for it.

Challenge Accepted
I haven't given a writing prompt at the end of a post in a long time, but this seems like an appropriate post to pick up with again. So, here's the challenge: Take a scene and rewrite it three times, with all the same characters and plot points, but in each scene, change the weather, whether it's indoors or out, and see how rain, wind, and sunshine change the way characters think, act, and feel. As always, I did the same and you can read my Challenge here.

Until then, have fun, and write something.

Monday, July 1, 2013

WIP it Good!

"When a problem comes along... you must WIP it." -Devo

Ok, so that's not quite what we mean by WIP in the writing world. This month's Writer's Ramble is about the current Work In Progress of each of our members. Many of you know that my current goal is to win the Writers of the Future contest. If you don't know about that, I have a separate page all about my journey here. But, to be more specific, I can't really talk about my actual current WIPs without risking disqualification from the contest. So instead I'll break down one of my recent stories that didn't win.

Herald of Salvation (Disappointing Title)
This is the story I submitted last quarter for the contest. It's about the crew of a messenger ship in the distant future where mankind has ventured out among the stars and settled many planets. However, though they can travel faster than light, communication is not so fast, hence the use of messenger ships that travel the expanse of human space delivering needed information. Mankind then encountered an alien race of superior strength and technological advancement. This alien race, know as the Hostis, seem to be interested in only one thing: the annihilation of the Human Race. Every attempt to communicate with these warrior beings has fallen on deaf ears, and any attempt to decipher their language has failed.

The story focuses on the crew of the Herald, a small messenger ship assigned to wait silently on the edge of a solar system where a cloaked human spy ship, the Scarcity, has inserted ground operatives on a Hostis settled planet. When the spies come up with useful intel, the information is sent from the Scarcity to the Herald, which then jumps out of the system to deliver the information to human military leaders. The Herald has just received a packet of information from the Scarcity that could very well turn the tide of the war, but before they can leave the system, there is a malfunction with the engine core and the Herald is left sitting dead in space. At the same time, the planetside spies are discovered and a Hostis warship has tracked the information transmission and is bearing down on the Herald at top speed.

Can the crew get the engines repaired in time? Can they decode the data packet and use this new information against the Hostis? Time is running out.

Hehe, that turned into a movie trailer, which was not the plan. I had a lot of fun writing this story. The original idea was based upon the thought of a ship waiting on the edge of space for a spy transmission. Of course, the ship has to break down just after they're discovered, it needs some tension. But the real intrigue of this story to me is what information is contained in the data packet that could turn the war around for the humans. I won't give any spoilers here, but let's just say those who've read it are polarized between loving the idea and hating it. I've taken kind of a risk including this aspect of the story because it's a heated argument in the science fiction community.

Unfortunately, I don't think I got this controversial reveal quite right because the story didn't even make honorable mention in the contest. Which is ok. I rushed my edits of the story to get in into the contest on before the deadline and I think that's what hurt it most of all. There's a great story here told poorly and I think I just need to break it down, see what's working and what isn't, and figure out how to make my reveal work within the context of the story.

I could use some fresh opinions on this story. If any of you would be interested in read the Herald of Salvation and giving me some feedback and suggestions (especially for a better title), I'd be willing to send it to you. Just comment on this post with your email address and I'll send it right over.

In regards to the contest, I just yesterday sent off another story for 3rd Quarter, a light-hearted ghost story that I wrote based on a writing prompt from the website Prompt and Circumstance. It was fun to write and includes some humor, which I don't do a lot of. I'm also currently working on a story set within a community on the moon which discovers that nuclear war has just destroyed the entire planet Earth and they may very well be the last human beings alive. Dun-dun-dun!

For those who are interested, feel free to follow my progress toward winning Writers of the Future on my Journey page.