Character, Setting, and Grounding the Reader

Hi Folks,

As I write this, I’ve just completed another classic (half-price, self-paced) workshop from Dean Wesley Smith.

I already know a lot of what I’m hearing in the workshop, but reminders are good too. And I knew hardly any of it a year or two ago. Yet I thought my writing was good. (grin)

All of this reminded me again of a writer who emailed me awhile back and asked me to critique a short story for her. After some back and forth (I generally don’t offer critiques), I gave in and read her story. It was only six pages.

I invested some time (free) and offered a constructive critique in the form of a series of short questions in imbedded comments scattered over the first couple of pages of her manuscript.

In the opening of any story (scene, etc.) you must hook the reader and take them to depth. That means within the first 200 – 500 words, the reader should connect with the POV character in some way AND be firmly grounded in the setting. More on that later.

This story opened with a husband on an exercise bike in the living room of their home. His wife came in and they started talking. The conversation went on for three pages.

At no time did I learn what the husband or wife looked like or what they were wearing. I have no idea whether they were young or older, trim or heavy, wet or dry.

I didn’t know anything about the setting except that there was an exercise bike of some sort in the living room and the guy was sitting on it as they talked.

I have no idea what other furniture, if any, was in the living room, whether there were any windows or doors or a fireplace, or whether there was anything on the walls.

No, wait. As the story opened, the wife DID “walk into” the living room and saw her husband on the exercise bike, so there must have been at least one door. But I don’t know whether she came in from outside or from the kitchen. If there was a kitchen.

I don’t know whether the floor covering was carpet, hardwood or tinfoil. Or even whether there was a floor. I have no idea whether it was day or night. There were no clues.

I have no idea why the exercise bike was in the living room, though I kind of assumed he was watching TV as he pedaled. But I have no idea whether there was a TV in the room either. Or a potted plant. Or whether he pedaled, for that matter. There was no movement.

I have no idea whether the temperature in the house was warm or cool. I didn’t hear an air conditioner or fan running, or the exercise bike, for that matter.

The only sounds were the disembodied voices of the characters. There was no sense of setting, no sensation of movement, even on the exercise bike.

I made a few suggestions, posed as brief questions like “What’s he look like? What’s she wearing? Can you describe the room?” etc.

In her quick reply, the author wrote only “I’ll take this under advisement.”

Oh. Well, good for you.

She also told me that “usually critiquers make a point of finding something good to say.”

Umm, I’m pretty sure she had me confused with her mother. Liking something unconditionally is Mom’s job. Mine is to write and, to a lesser degree, to attempt to pass along what I know.

Okay, so to that end…

Folks, when you open a story, you MUST pull the reader to depth quickly. Spend 200 to 500 words naming and describing the POV character and allowing that character to provide his/her opinion of the setting.

And remember that opinion MUST be filtered through the POV character’s physical senses. After all, the story comes from the character, not the writer.

As a quick example, say the setting is a formal library in a mansion and the deceased owner had a habit of smoking a pipe filled with black cherry tobacco while he read.

The reader doesn’t care whether you, the writer, think the room stinks or is aromatic. But what the POV character thinks about the room reveals part of who he/she is and enables the reader to connect.

When a given POV character encounters the smell of cherry pipe smoke, one might wrinkle her nose and frown. Another might smile slightly and think of her father, who also smoked a pipe. Or of her grandmother, whose kitchen often smelled of cherry pies baking in the oven. The thought might make her mouth water.

In that opening 200 to 500 words, invoke all five of the POV character’s physical senses and let him use those to provide his opinion of the setting.

The lighting is dim or bright (happy or glaring, etc.); the wingback chair, which is covered in human skin, is repulsive or interesting or even enticing; the paneled walls evoke a warm, comfortable feeling or are closing in. You get the idea.

This technique, this opening, will both reveal part of the POV character’s character and enable the reader to see, hear, taste, smell and feel the setting. It will pull the reader into the POV character’s head.

And your reader will be firmly hooked. Then you can allow the plot to advance, get into the action, etc. without risking losing the reader’s interest.

‘Til next time, keep writing!


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