Ecology of Story: The Difference Between Anecdotes and Stories—How to Tell a Good Story

tree trunks coolIn her article in Quartz Magazine, Lila MacLellan suggests that “we’ve become masters of telling anecdotes, and terrible at telling our friends real stories.” Sometimes people think they are telling a story, but they are really just telling anecdotes, MacLellan reports after interviewing Maggie Cino, senior story producer for Moth storytelling series. While “anecdotes just relate facts,” Cino explains, stories are “about letting us know that things started one way and ended a different way.” Stories create space for movement.

Merriam-Webster defines an anecdote as a “short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.” Anecdotes serve to incite interest and to illustrate a point. They are often amusing, odd, sad or even tragic; if they are biographical, they often serve to reflect someone’s personality, attitude or philosophy. While anecdotes often provide a contextual jumping board to make a point—drawing you in with relevance—they lack the structure of stories. An anecdote is something that happens; a story has a structure that makes it memorable and provides a depth of meaning.

Stories move with direction; they have a beginning, middle and end. Stories evoke emotional truths. They compel with intrigue then fulfil us with awareness and, sometimes, understanding. The best stories are told through metaphor, those universal truths we all live by. And all good stories weave a premise, theme, plot, character and setting into a tapestry with meaning.

I teach new writers at the University of Toronto and George Brown College how to tell stories. I teach how stories can tell us who we are. Where we’ve been. And sometimes, where we are  going. The stories that stir our hearts come from deep inside, where the personal meets the universal, through symbols or archetypes and metaphor.

Depth psychologist Carl Jung described these shared symbols, metaphors and archetypes as pre-existing forms of the psyche. He drew parallels between synchronicity, relativity theory and quantum mechanics to describe life as an expression of a deeper order. He believed that we are both embedded in a framework of a whole and are the focus of that whole. Jung was describing a fractal whole, which reflects quantum scientist David Bohm’s quantum vision of holomovement.

Jung’s concept of embedded whole and a universal collective unconscious was embraced by Hero’s Journey author and scholar Joseph Campbell, who suggested that these mythic images lie at the depth of the unconscious where humans are no longer distinct individuals, where our minds widen and merge into the mind and memory of humankind—where we are all the same, in Unity. Carl Jung’s thesis of the “collective unconscious” in fact linked with what Freud called archaic remnants: mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem aboriginal, innate, and the inherited shapes of the human mind. Marie-Louise von Franz, in 1985, identified Jung’s hypothesis of the collective unconscious with the ancient idea of an all- extensive world-soul. Writer Sherry Healy suggested that Jung viewed the human mind as linked to “a body of unconscious energy that lives forever.”

What Makes a Good Story?

soft flowers copyA good story is about something important; attracted by gravity, it has purpose and seeks a destination. A good story goes somewhere; it flows like a river from one place to another. A good story has meaning; its undercurrents run deep across hidden substrates with intrigue. A good story resonates with place; it finds its way home. We’ve just touched upon the five main components of good story: premise, character on a journey & plot, theme and—what is ultimately at the heart of a story—setting or place.

Story Components

The premise of a story is like the anecdote, a starting point of interest. It is an idea that will be dramatized through plot, character and setting. In idea-driven stories, it can often be identified by asking the question: “What if?” For instance, what if time travel was possible?

A character on a journey propels the story through meaningful change. Characters provide dramatized meaning to premise through personal representation of global themes. A character takes an issue and through their actions and circumstance in story provide a fractal connection to a larger issue. Characters need to move. They need to “go somewhere.” Archetypes—ancient patterns of personality (symbols) shared by humanity and connected by our collective unconscious—are metaphoric characters (which includes place) in the universal language of storytelling that help carry the story forward.

The theme of a story takes the premise and gives it personal and metaphoric meaning by dramatizing through a character journey. It is often identified by asking the question: “What’s at stake?” In taking the time travel premise, a theme of forgiveness may be applied by choosing a character wishing to return to the past to right a wrong, when what they just need to do is forgive others and themselves, not travel to the past at all, and get on with their lives.

In such a story, the plot would provide means and obstacles for the character in their journey toward enlightenment. Plot works together with theme to challenge and push a character toward their epiphany and meaningful change. Plot provides obstacles. Challenges. Emotional turning points. Opportunities for learning and change.

The role of setting or place is often not as clear to writers. Because of this, place and setting may often be neglected and haphazardly tacked on without addressing its role in story; in such a case the story will not resonate with what is often at the heart of the story: a sense of place. In stories where the setting changes (either itself changing such as in a story about the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius impacting Pompeii’s community; or by the character’s own movements from place to place) it appears easier to include how setting affects characters. However, the effect of place on character when the setting does not change can be equally compelling even if more subtle; the change is still there but lies in the POV character’s altered relationship to that place—a reflection of change within them.

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” due in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

Microsoft Word - Three Writing Guides.docx

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

The Art & Science of World Building: The Tools You Need to Make a Believable World

futistic cityMost fantasy and science fiction novels require major world-building, which involves both real and imagined aspects.

World building spices real physical and social facts with the author’s imagination to create a civilization, a political structure, a culture and zeitgeist as backdrop and influence to story. Writers define world-building as the process of constructing an imaginary world, usually associated with a fictional universe.

Popularized at science fiction workshops during the 1970s, the term describes the development of an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, and ecology that is rich, unique and resonates with the story’s premise.

The list below provides things to consider when first building your world:

  • The world (e.g., on Earth or not)
  • Physical and historical features (climate, geography, resources)
  • Magic and magicians (e.g., rules of magic, technology)
  • Peoples and customs (e.g., language, ethics and values, religion)
  • Social organization & structure (e.g., government, politics, conflicts, fashion, entertainment)
  • Commerce & trade (e.g., industry, transportation, communication)

Science vs. Art In World-Buildingthe-city-cgtrader

If a novel is a historical fantasy set on Earth, science is not a critical part of world building; if a novel is set on some probable planet in the Andromeda Galaxy, then science becomes an integral part. But, in both cases the writer needs to do his or her research. In the case of the historical fantasy, world building will be based on accurate historical information, even if an alternate history is being written.

Part of the reason people read historical epics is to learn more about that particular civilization and time period. The reader trusts that the writer will give him or her the facts on the world, while taking liberties on the remaining story elements. Similarly, a science fiction reader opens the first book in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series with the expectation of learning about a made-up world based on accurate principals of science.

A lot of science fiction is written by nonscientists. That said, many science fiction readers— particularly those who enjoy hard science fiction—expect your science to be not only plausible but somewhat proven and your premise to be based upon sound scientific principle. They expect your research to be impeccable because they are expecting to learn something—in science.

World-Builder’s Disease? 

City of Woven Streets

“City of Woven Streets” by Emmi Itaranta

“Fantasy writers have a penchant for working up histories of imaginary empires that can run for hundreds of pages, full of maps and chronologies and genealogical trees a yard long,” says Ansen Dibell, author of The Elements of Writing Fiction: Plot. “Similarly, science fiction writers can fall in love with their hardware and want to show it off,” he adds and describes this as a kind of narrative cancer, a “World-Builder’s disease.”

Most writers who world-build keep extensive files of background information on their worlds. In some cases, these can be published as companions to the main book series (e.g., J.K. Rowling’s books on Quiddich or magical creatures, which most certainly came from her extensive background notes). Dibell’s point is that this information doesn’t belong in the main book, where it can interfere with the process of storytelling. It becomes “info dump”, which is often very static, lacks drama, and proves ultimately boring.

Tying Your World to Theme and Plot

NineteenEightyFour

“Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell

What’s important to remember is that the world you build is part of the story. It isn’t just a lot of “interesting” detail. The world you build, like a character in your story, plays a role in defining and supporting its theme. The major qualities of your world are, therefore, best derived for plot and thematic reasons—which come from “story”. The rest—the details—are things you can find in books, websites or get from experts in your local university, etc.  Don’t let science intimidate you; but ensure that you get it right by using your resources and verifying your information with an expert. Use your local libraries, universities, colleges, and online resources. Interview scientists, technical people and other writers. That’s part of being a writer too.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Crossing into the Ecotone to Write Meaningful Eco-Fiction

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”—George Bernard Shaw

 

naturalselectionAt Calgary’s When Words Collide this past August, I moderated a panel on Eco-Fiction with publisher/writer Hayden Trenholm, and writers Michael J. Martineck, Sarah Kades, and Susan Forest. The panel was well attended; panelists and audience discussed and argued what eco-fiction was, its role in literature and storytelling generally, and even some of the risks of identifying a work as eco-fiction.

Someone in the audience brought up the notion that “awareness-guided perception” may suggest an increase of ecological awareness in literature when it is more that readers are just noticing what was always there. Authors agreed and pointed out that environmental fiction has been written for years and it is only now—partly with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—that the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor; for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

darwins-paradoxI submit that if we are noticing it more, we are also writing it more. Artists are cultural leaders and reporters, after all. My own experience in the science fiction classes I teach at UofT and George Brown College, is that I have noted a trend of increasing “eco-fiction” in the works in progress that students are bringing in to workshop in class. Students were not aware that they were writing eco-fiction, but they were indeed writing it.

I started branding my writing as eco-fiction a few years ago. Prior to that—even though my stories were strongly driven by an ecological premise and strong environmental setting—I described them as science fiction and many as technological thrillers. Environment’s role remained subtle and—at times—insidious. Climate change. Water shortage. Environmental disease. A city’s collapse. War. I’ve used these as backdrops to explore relationships, values (such as honour and loyalty), philosophies, moralities, ethics, and agencies of action. The stuff of storytelling.

Environment, and ecological characteristics were less “theme” than “character,” with which the protagonist and major characters related in important ways.

Snowpiercer-frenchJust as Bong Joon-Ho’s 2014 science fiction movie Snowpiercer wasn’t so much about climate change as it was about exploring class struggle, the capitalist decadence of entitlement, disrespect and prejudice through the premise of climate catastrophe. Though, one could argue that these form a closed loop of cause and effect (and responsibility).

snowpiercer-posterThe self-contained closed ecosystem of the Snowpiercer train is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front of the train enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a man whose two intact arms suggest he hasn’t done his part to serve the community yet.

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that:

We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.  snowpiercer-mason

In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Ecotones are places where “lines are crossed,” where barriers are breached, where “words collide” and new opportunities arise. Sometimes from calamity. Sometimes from tragedy. Sometimes from serendipity.

When environment shapes a story as archetype—hero, victim, trickster, shadow or shape shifter—we get strong eco-fiction. Good eco-fiction, like any good story, explores the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Good eco-fiction ventures into the ecotone of overlap, collision, exchange and ultimate change.

water-is-webIn my latest book Water Is… I define an ecotone as the transition zone between two overlapping systems. It is essentially where two communities exchange information and integrate. Ecotones typically support varied and rich communities, representing a boiling pot of two colliding worlds. An estuary—where fresh water meets salt water. The edge of a forest with a meadow. The shoreline of a lake or pond.

For me, this is a fitting metaphor for life, given that the big choices we must face usually involve a collision of ideas, beliefs, lifestyles or worldviews: these often prove to enrich our lives the most for having gone through them. Evolution (any significant change) doesn’t happen within a stable system; adaptation and growth occur only when stable systems come together, disturb the equilibrium, and create opportunity. Good social examples include a close friendship or a marriage in which the process of “I” and “you” becomes a dynamic “we” (the ecotone) through exchange and reciprocation. Another version of Bernard Shaw’s quote, above, by the Missouri Pacific Agriculture Development Bulletin reads: “You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now, you have two ideas and so do I. Both are richer. What you gave you have. What you got I did not lose. This is cooperation.” This is ecotone.

winter-birch-sunset-snowI think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because ecosystems, ecology and environment are becoming more integral to story: as characters in their own right. I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because we are ready to see it. Just as quantum physics emerged when it did and not sooner, an idea—a thought—crystalizes when we are ready for it.

Don’t stay a shoe … go find an ecotone. Then write about it.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Sharing Nature’s Terrible Secrets And When Trees Talk Dirty…

 

nature's canop-2One of the lectures I give to my science fiction writing students is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character.1

I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction. Students perk up when I discuss some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring alconbluebutterfly-antsfor its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

When I bring in extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas. I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

water-bear03

Tardigrade

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own. Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

When Trees Share the Dirt

“Trees are the foundation of a forest, but a forest is much more than what you see,” says University of British Columbia forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.

suzanne-simard-portrait

Suzanne Simard

Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of research, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest. This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root). These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

forest-conversing

Myccorhyzae and fungal highways

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Simard made another incredible discovery: that mother trees “recognize their kin.” In experiments her team ran using related and unrelated seedlings, the mother tree preferentially sent its excess carbon to kin over non-kin seedlings.

These discoveries pose some serious implications in how we do and should manage our forests. “You can take out one or two hub trees, but there’s a tipping point,” says Simard. “You take out one too many and the whole system collapses.”

Simard shared that “in 2014 the World Resources Institute reported that Canada in the past decade has had the highest forest disturbance rate of any country worldwide…In Canada it’s 3.6% per year…about four times the rate that is sustainable.”

“Massive disturbance at this scale is known to affect hydrological cycles, degrade wildlife habitat and emit greenhouse gases back to the atmosphere, which creates more disturbance and more tree die-backs,” says Simard. She adds that the practice of planting commercially valued species at the expense of the indigenous aspens and birches lacks complexity and promotes vulnerability to disease. It’s creating “a perfect storm,” Simard concludes.

Trees & Climate Change

A major international report on climate change shows that wildlife habitats will be dramatically impacted around the world. In Canada, this could fundamentally alter 65 per cent of its existing natural habitat in the boreal and Arctic regions, where warming will be the greatest. The report says that seven Canadian provinces – Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba – will have more than half of their natural habitat at risk.

Simard asks: “Instead of weakening our forests, how can we reinforce them and help them deal with climate change?” She suggests four simple solutions:

  1. Get out into the forest and re-establish local involvement in our forests, using management techniques based on local knowledge
  2. Save our old-growth forests, the repositories of genetic material, mother trees and micorhizal networks
  3. Save the mother trees when cutting trees
  4. Regenerate our forests with a diversity of species types and structures

“Forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other; they are super-cooperators,” Simard points out. “The great thing about forests,” she reminds us, “is that as complex systems, they have an enormous capacity to self-heal.”

How Healing Trees Can Heal Us

Aside from being highly evolved water management specialists, trees are chemical factories that broadcast a host of aerosols into the atmosphere around them. Researchers have found over 120 substances, of which only half could be identified. These aerosols are part of a sophisticated survival strategy, writes botanist and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Studies have shown that willows, poplars and maples warn each other about insect attacks; undamaged trees then pump bug-repelling chemicals to ward off the attack. Black walnut trees emit juglone, an aerosol that repels competing nearby plants and some insects. Scientists demonstrated that airborne communication between individual sagebrush plants (called “eavesdropping”) helped neighbouring plants resist attacks. The monoterpenes like pinene and linene can relieve asthma and even fight cancer.

You can read more about this in my book “Water Is… (Pixl Press).

 

1I give several lectures based on this general topic of world building for writers. One I gave recently, at CanCon2016 in Ottawa, focused on aquatic worlds, my scientific area of expertise.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

Importance of Setting in a Novel

lamp-nature I travel, always arriving in the same place—Dejan Stojanovic, The Shape

Setting grounds your writing in the reality of place and depicts the theme of your story through powerful metaphor. Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care. Without a place there is no story. Setting serves multipurpose roles in story. It helps with plot, determines and describes character and gives metaphoric links to theme. Setting, like the force in Star Wars, provides a landscape that binds everything into context and meaning.

Place Your Story

According to acclaimed novelist Richard Russo, if you’re not writing stories that occur in a specific place, you’re missing the opportunity to add depth and character to your writing. We are creatures of our environment, adds Robert Louis Stevenson. Our outlook on life is colored by the setting in which we find ourselves. Editors have told me that they have little faith in the vision of writers who don’t clearly depict the world their characters inhabit. Imagine Thomas Hardy’s characters without Egdon Heath or Scarlet O’Hara without her beloved Tara or Dorothy without the Land of Oz.

Setting includes time, place and circumstance. These three form a kind of critical mass that creates the particular setting best suited to your story. If you change any of these it will affect the quality of the others.

house in fogSetting as Character

Settings can not only have character; they can be a character in their own right. A novelist, when portraying several characters, may often find herself painting a portrait of “place”. This is setting being “character”. The setting functions as a catalyst, and molds the more traditional characters that animate a story. The central character is often really the place, which is often linked to the protagonist. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, Frodo is very much an extension of his beloved Shire.

D.H. Lawrence suggested that Egdon Heath was the most important character in Thomas Hardy’s book Return of the Native:

Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.–D.H. Lawrence on Return of the Native

 

Setting, then, comes to mean so much more. Setting personified. Setting ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story.

Setting as Metaphor

When you choose your setting, remember that its primary metaphoric role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

In Bong Joon-Ho’s motion picture Snowpiercer, about a train careering the world with the remains of humanity, place and destiny are welded together in tight metaphor. The train “is the world”. This dark surrealistic allegory examines all iterations of place in a class struggle between the front and tail ends of the train. In an early scene, one of the the ruling class evokes her own metaphors to remind the lower class of their place:

“Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station…Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat snowpiercer-mason-shoebelongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.

In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position. So it is.

Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail.

When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”–Minister Mason in Snowpiercer

 

Russo tells us that place is crucial to human destiny and the formation of human personality. “The more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel,” says Russo. This is not an oxymoron, but an example of the principle of a truism, which comes to us in the form of paradox (like all good truisms).

Detail provides the color and texture of your story and helps it resonate with a sense of place. This does not necessarily translate into lots of exposition; but it does require creative choice of words. So, instead of “John took a drag from his cigarette as he drove his sports car along a winding road in the country” (twenty words) try something like “Vinnie sucked on a Camel as his red Corvette careered the hair-pinned curves of Hell’s Gate” (seventeen words).

Setting & Emotion

The setting may amplify a character’s emotions or contradict them, depending on the circumstance of the character, her mood, disposition, tendencies, and observational skills. And the kind of story you’re telling. Either way, setting provides an “emotional landscape” upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony. The writer should think of the less obvious, of contrast, and how you can increase tension and emphasize the character’s situation.

Setting as Weather

louisville-icestorm-jan09-16Weather conveys the mood and tone of both story and character. Weather is not just part of the scenery. To a writer, weather is a device used in plot and theme. A good example is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and how he used the desert setting and the hot winds to evoke mood, character, tension, theme and ultimately story:

“The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East”–Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

In summary, here are some suggestions that will help you create vivid, memorable and meaningful settings:

  • Don’t “tack” setting in; make it an integral part of the story; give it purpose
  • Describe selectively and with purpose—through integration in “scene” rather than exposition
  • Be specific (e.g., soft pink rose, not flower; beat up Chevy, not car; old clapboard cottage, not house)
  • Use similes, metaphors, and personification to breathe life into setting
  • Use the senses like sight, sound, smell, taste, feel
  • Don’t tell, show (e.g., don’t say the time is the 1920s; show the cars and dresses. Don’t tell the reader it’s raining; show them by describing the dripping trees, etc.)
  • Compare and contrast settings and relate them to the point of view characters
  • Don’t describe setting all at once in the beginning; work it in slowly throughout the story; let it unfold as the story does

 

This article is an excerpt from Chapter H of The Fiction Writer: Get Pubished, Write Now!

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.