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Creative Writing Class Part I – Description and Setting

I’ve mentioned on Twitter that this semester is killing me, but I haven’t mentioned that I’m in my first creative writing class. Honestly, those three hours are my favorite part of the week. The professor is this eccentric, old, snarky, Bostonian guy with hair that always looks like he just got out of a wind tunnel. My classmates are introverted (of course), but I always walk away feeling like I’ve learned a lot.

He’s taking us through the most basic elements of creative writing. So far, we’ve covered setting and description, character, and dialogue, for each of which I’ll make a separate blog post. Today, I’m just going to cover setting and description. For this, he gave us five rules:

1. It doesn’t cost extra to write in color, so don’t be afraid to use it. My professor likened it to painting with words.

2. Although description is mainly visual, using other senses immerses the reader even more deeply.

3. Use metaphor. My professor gathers almost all figurative language under this umbrella, including similes, personification, etc.

4. Include small, specific details.

5. The external landscape should reflect the internal.

The short story he used as an example was Updike’s “A&P.” About 90% of the story is description. So, it’s a little unconventional, but Updike hits each of these points bang on. Go read it keeping all of these in mind.

He uses color to describe almost everything. He uses sound in addition to sight. There’s plenty of figurative language and small details sprinkled throughout. How it measures up to rule 5 is a little more subjective, but I think Updike does a pretty good job of setting the mood.

So, keep these in mind during your writing and revision and be on the lookout for it in your reading. See how other writers do it. With a little hard work and diligence, you’ll be a master of description and setting.

Hat on a Hat

I have mixed feelings about Save the Cat by Blake Shelton. On one hand, it takes a cynical, commercialistic approach to the art of storytelling. On the other, he has some pretty dang good points. I’ve been thinking about his story physics lately–rather, one law in particular. He says that each story is allowed one magical element.

Fantasy writers needn’t worry. Their magic is usually in the concept and is therefore weaved into every part of the story. For instance, you can flesh out a detailed magical system that exists in a medieval-esque alternate universe. Your characters can cast spell after spell, over and over, but it’s still just one magic act.

The problems arise when you try to add something on top of that. While a giant, talking turtle upon whose back the world sits might be consistent with whatever universe you’ve designed, aliens may not be. If you have UFOs floating over your wizard school, you might want to go back to the beginning and reassess.

Of course, it’s not always as obvious as that, and writing style and storytelling are often subjective; we creatives often work in shades of gray. Authors also have a tendency to miss the forest for the trees. They’re so immersed in their story, so familiar with it that they can miss huge problems.

To fix this, I recommend going back to your premise or concept. If you have an ‘and’ in there, maybe take a second to think about cutting something out. Ask your writer friends and beta readers for recommendations. And, of course, you can hire an editor, writing coach, or story doctor.

Concept, Premise, and Story

Every time I log in to Reddit, I see posts from authors that go something like, “My story is about a wizard who’s only able to do magic that involves cats. How’s my plot?” First, interesting idea and I want to read your story. Second, not a plot.

But it is something, and it’s a necessary step to form the story. This is what’s generally called a concept. It’s the interesting part of the story, the hook that pulls you in; the person, place, thing, or idea around which the story revolves. It’s that thing about a story that makes you say, “Oh, neat!” In Harry Potter, it’s “a boy attending a wizarding school.” In Fight Club it’s “an underground, illicit boxing club run with nihilistic undercurrents.” In Frankenstein, it’s “a monster made of body parts from various corpses.”

This helps us get to the premise, which is more specific. It describes the main character, her goal, and who or what is in her way. So, Harry Potter is about a boy learning to be a wizard who must overcome the Dark Lord Voldemort as he tries to restore peace to the wizarding world. Fight Club is about a man who wants to find meaning and identity in a society that revolves around consumerism and superficiality, only to find himself in the middle of a nihilistic cult. Frankenstein is about a man who must destroy a monster of his own creation when it develops misanthropic tendencies.

Plot is what comes after the premise. It’s the sequence of events sandwiched between the beginning and the end. This one is a little harder to develop, but thankfully more brilliant minds than I have developed formulas to create one. Here’s Blake Snyder’s as an example:

  1. Opening image
  2. Setup
  3. Theme stated
  4. Catalyst
  5. Debate
  6. Break into act II
  7. B story
  8. Promise of the premise
  9. Midpoint
  10. Bad guys close in
  11. All is lost
  12. Dark night of the soul
  13. Break into act III
  14. Finale
  15. Final image

In his book, “Save the Cat,” Snyder gives even more information about what each plot beat should contain as well as their timing in the story. It looks a little strict and rigid, but it doesn’t have to be. These frameworks allow a lot of room for creativity. Play around with them a little bit. If you don’t like one, try another; there are tons of them out there. I’m personally partial to Jack Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story.”

Bottom line: Concept, premise, and plot are three distinct ideas and story development flows through all three.

Weakness, need, and desire

Part of being a decent editor, I think, is being a decent writer. Like a doctor knows the human body, I need to know the parts of story in order to diagnose and treat its maladies. One of the best books in this regard is John Truby’s Anatomy of Story.

A couple things about this book threw me off when I first opened it. He has a somewhat dry tone and is often dogmatic in his assertions. What he says is the way it is and there’s nothing to do about it. Being something of a creative, I still buck at that view (or at least the phrasing of it), but looking at stories through the theoretical lens that he outlines is truly enlightening.

Second, it’s technically a book for screenwriters. But no matter what medium the storyteller uses, a story is a story. The principles are there no matter what form the narrative takes. It’s kind of like physics, but subjective and messy and with less math.

I kept going back to one particular part: the beginning steps of creating a compelling character. Truby asserts that a good, complex, memorable character has psychological and moral weaknesses that hurt him and the people around him. This creates a need; i.e. the character needs to overcome his shortcomings. This informs his desire, which is a short-term, external goal that will help to fulfill his need.

Most theories of story that I’ve read assert that the story ends where it began to show just how much the character has changed over the story. If he hasn’t, then maybe the stakes weren’t high enough, or there wasn’t enough tension, or there wasn’t much of a conflict at all. But if the character starts out with a weakness that will directly impede his progress towards his goal, it’s automatically a more interesting story than if he could walk calmly from point A to point B.

I think this resonates so much with us because — I mean, do I need to say it? — we’ve all changed. We’ve all had that moment where we’ve come home from college or boot camp and looked around and seen how everything is exactly the same. We know at least one guy who’s been working the same job since 16 and doesn’t aspire to anything greater. We’ve measured ourselves against these static standards and realized that when we weren’t looking, we became a different person. It’s a strange moment. Empowering, yet humbling.

The bottom line is, make your main character a shitty person (but not so shitty that the audience wants him to fail) and make him suffer. This is the start of a good story.