November 25, 2010

Real World Settings, or Don’t Just Pick a Town for the Fun of It

Filed under: Book Discussion,Writing — Brian Triber @ 11:41 pm

I’ve just finished reading a collection of short stories whose author and title shall remain nameless, except to say that they were all set in one manner or another in my home state. Now, I’ve read many stories set in rural New England, some period, some modern. Some, like H. P. Lovecraft’s, evoke place in such a concrete manner that I can’t help but see myself in those places. A very fine example is Pickman’s Model, where the feel of Newubry Street and the North End of Boston is visceral to the point that I can imagine the smell of veal scalopini cooking in the background. Another good example is Brunonia Barry’s book, The Map of True Places which evokes Salem to the point that I could see myself on Derby Street near the House of the Seven Gables looking up at the widow’s walk of her fictional house, smelling the salt air.

So, it pains me to no end when I read something so uninformed in setting that I not only can’t picture the town it’s supposedly set in, but realize the story could be set anywhere in the rural northeast by simply changing the name of the town in the story.

This leads me to consider what the true purpose of setting is in story. Books on writing generally say the same things about setting, which is that it should reflect the story in some manner, and that it should also reflect the action. I don’t feel that this really goes far enough. In my view, setting should be considered carefully from two perspectives. Those are: how it serves the story; and authenticity.

Serving the Story

The setting for a scene, as well as the overarching story setting, should support the story in two ways.

First, it should reflect the mood of the main or viewpoint character in the scene. By this, I don’t necessarily mean that if the character is gloomy, they should be in a darkly lit circus tent, although if the story involves dark and lonely side show performers, that would work. Instead, make the setting gloomy to match the character’s inner turmoil: an early February evening on a wind-swept beach, with darkness closing in, not even the sound of a seagull to pierce the scattering sound of sand.

Second, the setting should match the action of the scene. If the scene is a confrontation between two characters, conflict can be heightened by placing them in an active environment. For instance, an argument resulting in a major break between characters can take place at the entrance to a department store downtown, the Salvation Army Santa ringing his bell loudly while shoppers and commuters hustle by, nearly knocking the characters over, cutting between them, and punctuating the disagreement with street noise. Similarly, if the scene has a character reflecting over another character who loves books, a quiet spot, such as the cafe at a book store, or the reference room at a library might work, with the announcement of the book store closing, or the grandfather clock in the library chiming to break the end of the scene, respectively.


If a setting is being used for a reason, it needs to be described authentically. Simply by stating that a character walks into a store can be fine if the point is to bridge two other scenes. But if something substantial happens in that store (and something substantial had better happen in that store: scenes should never be included unless it furthers the plot) the store needs to be described in a way that is authentic, especially if it is a real non-fiction environment. This doesn’t mean it has to be described physically, but it needs to at least have an emotional component authentic to the store. Things like how the florescent lights bleach the walls, the fragrance counter exudes ambergris and vanilla, the grey carpeting chafes rubber soles underfoot, are all details that can build emotions like coldness, sexuality, or irritation, respectively. But if the store doesn’t have carpets or florescent lighting, or sell perfumes, don’t include it for effect.

Similarly, towns, neighborhood, or other real locales shouldn’t be used for a setting just because it happens to be a famous spot, or a place the writer always wanted to visit. A lack of authenticity in describing a real locale rings of amateurish writing skills, and is insulting to those readers familiar with the real world place who don’t recognize it in the writing.

Which brings me full circle to the reason I wrote this in the first place. The piece I read was insulting to me because I have been in many of the places it claims to be set in, but it rang false for two different reasons. One was the lack of description of the actual setting. Because of this, I remained unanchored to the story — it felt like it could have occurred anywhere. The other was the stories’ descriptions of landmarks that didn’t exist in the setting — the story not only didn’t happen where it claimed to have happened, but most definitely occurred somewhere else.

How did this change my experience of the stories? I found the attempt at anchoring the stories to a place distracting at best. At worst, the disconnect between the described setting and the actual setting undermined the authority of the writer, and made me turn ahead to see how many pages were left in the story. In a case like this, the story probably would have been best served by using a fictional place name, or altogether leaving the name out.

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November 24, 2010

The Name a Character Contest

Filed under: Mark Ix,Writing — Brian Triber @ 11:11 am

I’ve been ruminating on the next book for a while, and delaying drafting it. The plot is essentially complete, although I know from experience that there’s no such thing as “complete” until the final edit, and even then it might not be.

The new book is a bit of a cross between The Matrix meets The Office. I don’t want to give too much away, but the working title is “Mark Ix”, after the main character who finds himself the target of bizarre attacks by the office’s mail-delivery robots, and an invisible protagonist named “Smike”, who would like nothing more than for Mark to be sacrificed to the gods of computing. Mark’s department has been moved so often that his boss now occupies Mark’s outer office, and the staplers keep disappearing from everyone’s desks. Mark’s been falling for the girl in the next office, Lillian, a passive-aggressive software engineer who refuses to talk to anyone except her plants. Most alarming of all, however, are Mark’s frequent blackouts, leaving him with missing memories and a door tag with a new last name every time.

So that’s the basic gist of it. Now, I have a few minor characters I’m developing who need good clever names. So, as a kind of contest, I’m putting this out there for whoever wants to join in. Help me name one of these characters!

1: He works as the company archivist. I picture him as reserved, gaunt, and so introverted and high strung that if he snapped, there’d be nothing left to bury.

2: The maintenance worker, lethargic, and resistant to any kind of interaction with anyone, except to complain about how much work he has, and how much the conversation is setting him behind.

3: The secretary, who is always backtalking, even to her boss. Her primary goal is to offload as much of her work onto others as she can. She is also a passive-aggressive type, and knows how to use office equipment as weapons in order to defend herself.

4: A security officer. This character is stoic to a fault, like the crack running across his/her jaw from being wound up so tight. He/she isn’t very smart about much, but those areas that he/she knows he/she is an expert in, in fact hyperintelligent.

So, there are the four characters up for naming. Anyone who would like to help name these characters can submit a name by responding to this post. The best name will be used in the manuscript, and I’ll thank the winning contributor by name in the acknowledgments. Good luck!

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November 9, 2010

New Lectures by John Quincy Adams

Filed under: Writing,Writing Sample — Brian Triber @ 10:39 pm

Alright, the lectures aren’t new, per se, but the text is.

I have begun the task of editing all of John Quincy Adams’ Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory out of frustration for not having a legible and accurate copy available anywhere other than a scarce hardbound copy of Volume II on my living room shelf. Since this work is in the public domain, I am sharing it freely and asking for feedback to improve it.  It can be found on my web site here.

Why, you might wonder, bother with an obscure volume like this? I would argue that Adams’ eloquence alone is worth the reading. But more than that, writers can benefit from the piece as an example of how to match form to message. Not only are his lectures on rhetoric illuminating, they are themselves rhetorical genius.

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