Have you ever read a piece of fiction that felt incomplete? You wonder what’s lacking, but can’t pinpoint the missing pieces of the puzzle? Chances are, the author overlooked some vital bit of craft.
Fiction never comes out right the first time, unless you’re a genius. It takes several drafts before all the elements needed to complete a good story are in place. Some call this process layering, which includes essentials such as setting, sensory details, emotional depth and character movement.
Countless people use fiction as a means of escape; they’re armchair adventurers who steep themselves in the quests undertaken by fictional characters, and it is the writer’s responsibility to ensure this escape materializes. One the ways of doing this is through setting.
Before my final draft of any story, Jamaica is invisible. It is where I grew up and where I live, nothing exciting about it, right? Not so for a non-Jamaican. It’s an exotic location; somewhere he’d/she’d love to go on vacation. For those who can’t travel, the next best thing is a story that familiarizes them with the island. A vibrant setting lends authenticity to the tale being told. Each reader will take something different away from your descriptions and that’s fine; we all create unique mental pictures as we read.
Setting is bigger than mere location. Your story may be about an isolated village in the Blue Mountains, but it speaks to the bigger picture – values and norms of Jamaican society. The dialect in that remote village perhaps contrasts with how the people in the nearby town speak. In your story locale, families may intermarry, but that isn’t the norm outside those surroundings. Life may differ in the capital city, fifty miles away. Setting creates a bigger canvass against which the reader outlines the pictures painted for him by the author.
The setting also reflects the mood and theme of the story. Say your story is about a woman with mental problems. Unexplained things happen around her. She starts doubting her sanity, but suspects her estranged husband is orchestrating the weird occurrences. She’s confined to her house and starts seeing shadows and wispy images of long-dead people.
What would send fear chasing down your spine? Seeing her indoors on a sunshiny day, jumping at shadows, or watching her alone in the house on a stormy night, thunder rolling, wind outside, rain beating against the windows and doors? After a crack of thunder, the electricity supply goes. The shifting shadows merge into terrifying shapes. By this time, your protagonist is shaking with fright, and so are you. This is how setting enhances the mood of the story and places the reader in the picture with the character.
Sensory details allow us to delve under the character’s skin. We experience their interaction with the environment unconsciously and take sight, taste, touch, hearing and the sense of smell for granted. We only miss these background details — which enhances the reader’s experience — if the writer neglects to include them. An expert will weave details seamlessly into prose. Note the following examples.
Veronica walked to the edge of the verandah and sat down in the creaking patio chair. The sun blazed outside and the leaves shook on the fruit trees in the yard. Bruised mangoes lay under a tree. Veronica decided to see if any of the mangoes could be eaten and got up, scraping her elbow against the edge of the chair.
The example above has to potential to involve all the senses, however, as written I only experienced sight, sound and touch. Consider the example below.
Veronica strolled to the edge of the verandah and slumped in the patio chair. It squalled like the damn cat did whenever she caught its tail in the door. The sun warmed her skin, and she squinted when the glare off the burnt grass hit her eyes.
The wind tumbled through the trees and set the leaves chattering. Mangoes hurtled to the ground, as though thrown by invisible hands. The overripe fruit under the tree stared out of blackened eyes, their aroma heady on the breeze. Veronica salivated; she loved East Indian mangoes. Might as well collect a few before the dog got to them. She dragged her hands along the chair arm and prepared to rise. Something sharp clawed the back of her right arm. She cupped her elbow and peered at the angry red line that marred her skin.
The second illustration used more words, but it also painted a vivid picture of the same scene, using all the sensory elements.
Months ago, I read a report that said sales of romance novels were on the increase in America, despite the harsh economic climate. Some sources put this down to escapism, and there are always the emotional junkies, who buy into love stories. Romance novels do exceptionally well at dropping the reader into the character’s headspace. To make this happen, the writer has to get inside the hero/heroine’s skin and live there for the duration of time it takes to complete the novel.
This smacks of role-playing, and it is. You must live the experience of a character to be able to pull someone else into that character’s life. A critique partner of mine commented recently on a scene I’d written where a man agonized — and this is a strong description for what I originally wrote — over whether he’d go to jail on a murder charge. She noted that I had to inject more internal monologue to show the man’s agitation and fright. She was right.
How can a storyteller write about a prostitute’s humiliation at the hand of a client, the loss of a child, or the motivation of a woman who’s killed her sister, without being in that position? As dramatic as it sounds, I’ve shed tears over my characters, having placed myself in their situation while seeking solutions to their challenges.
If the emotional depth of your characters is akin to the skimming motion of an egret, as it ruffles the surface of a pond, then your story is going to lack life and verisimilitude. Think of the last novel or short story you read that stayed in your mind for days or weeks afterwards. I’m sure it was because you fought the same battles and tasted the victories as if they were yours.
A little less important than emotional involvement is the movement of your characters – not from place to place, but within their current setting. Sometimes, due to the intensity of a discussion, we forget that the individuals who populate our stories are living, breathing people. They walk, wave, grimace, roll their eyes. In short, they interact with their environment.
I don’t always fine tune this aspect of storytelling until the last pass. At some point during the revision process, I wonder what people are doing as they speak. Avoid ‘talking heads’ syndrome at all cost. Picture yourself, or study friends, relatives and co-workers at home and in the office. Do they gesticulate while talking? What does their body language say? When agitated, do they pace, clench their jaw, smooth their hair, shuffle their feet? Now imagine your hero in the same situation and fill in the necessary touches.
Our life experiences carry over to our writing and the best stories I’ve written are those in which the setting was vivid and the story involved all the senses in some way. I identified with the characters and established clear pictures of them, in scene. It takes practice to combine all these elements for fluid storytelling, and it’s more challenging on the scale of a novel.
Writers will acknowledge that it’s not possible to insert all these layers on one edit, so if it helps, jot these notes somewhere close to your computer and ensure you’ve included each element while you proofread.