Posted in setting, the novel, Uncategorized, writing prompts

How to Write A Setting With Personality

“The setting was like another character.” Have you ever heard someone describe a story this way? What is it that makes some settings feel alive, as if they were a person and not just a landscape? It takes more than just writing vivid description. Today, I’m sharing three ways to give your settings personality.

Setting is Responsive

My favorite instruction on writing setting comes from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. In her essay, “Place” Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Caroline, shares what makes setting come alive for her.

I cannot abide a story told to me by a numb, empty voice that never responds to anything that’s happening, that doesn’t express some feeling in response to what it sees. Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get to somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page–articulates with deliberate purpose. If you keep giving me these eyes that note all the details–if you keep telling me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious–then I’m a bit frustrated with you. I want a story that’ll pull me in. I want a story that makes me drunk. I want a story that feeds me glory. And most of all, I want a story that I can trust. I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.

Dorothy Allison, “Place”

In other words, in order for a place to feel like a character, the other characters should display an interactive relationship with it.

Allison goes on to say, “Place is where the ‘I’ goes. Place is what that ‘I’ looks at, what it doesn’t look at. Is it happy? Is it sad? Is it afraid? Is it curious?”

You have to know your main character’s personality well. This is especially important if you have a first-person narrator, since everything is being filtered through that character’s opinions.

Writing Prompt

In Allison’s essay, she makes a list of single lines of description that summarize her feelings toward various cities she’s visited. They are as follows:

  • Central Florida is despair.
  • New York City is sex.
  • California is smug.
  • Boston has never gotten over Henry James.
  • Seattle and Portland lie about their weather.
  • Iowa City is one hotel room and a chlorine stink away from the suburbs of hell.

Using Dorothy Allison’s sentences as a model, write single sentence descriptions that sum up the feelings you have about each of the cities and neighborhood where you have lived.

These lines make great opening sentences for stories or essays. Vladimir Nabokov began one of his short stories, “Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull.”

Setting is Personified

So far we’ve talked about how characters react to settings, but sometimes settings have an agency of their own. In the following passage, Jeanette Winterson introduces the setting in the first chapter of her novel The Daylight Gate.

The Forest of Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter—alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt. […]

There is still a tradition, or a superstition, that a girl-child born in Pendle Forest should be twice baptized; once in church and once in a black pool at the foot of the hill. The hill will know her then. She will be its trophy and its sacrifice. She must make her peace with her birthright, whatever that means.

Jeanette Winterson, The Daylight Gate

Notice how she describes the hill like a creature, wearing a coat cropped like an animal pelt. Then as we go on, the hill begins to act, not just look, like a living creature. It knows the girl, as much as she knows it.

When nonliving things are described as if they had the qualities of something alive, this is called personification.

In this particular novel, we might suspect that there is something supernatural or uncanny about this setting that is giving it its agency. But even if your setting’s personification is a mere metaphor, it can still be effective in making it more evocative to the reader.

Writing Prompt

Your setting is alive. Write a scene where the setting has a message that it wants to communicate to a human character. How does it get its message across? Also think about your human character’s emotional response to the situation.

Setting is Defamiliarized

There’s an old saying that it’s the job of a writer to make the ordinary feel strange and new. This is called defamiliarization. The passage below describes a place that many of you should be familiar with, but does it feel comfortable and ordinary?

If there is a river within a thousand miles of Riverside Drive, I saw no signs of it. It’s like every place else out there: endless scorched boulevards lined with one-story stores, shops, bowling alleys, skating rinks, taco drive-ins, all of them shaped not like rectangles but like trapezoids, from the way the roofs slant up from the back and the plateglass fronts slant out as if they’re going to pitch forwards on the sidewalk and throw up.

Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

Here we have the suburban sprawl typical of southern California, but the description makes it feel anything but typical. Everything is slanted and irregularly shaped. The buildings are ready to vomit.

It is described in a way that makes the readers feel like they’re dizzy themselves. This isn’t just because of the word choice; the long run-on sentence is used intentionally to make the reader feel overwhelmed.

Whether or not the reader feels comfortable with your setting has nothing to with whether they know the place in real life. It’s all up to your words and sentence structure.

Writing Prompt

Write a scene where an alien visits a setting that is familiar to people living in the West in the 21st Century. It might be a supermarket, a highway, or a school. How does this setting feel outlandish, strange or unfamiliar to your character? What words and sentence structures capture this feeling?

The character doesn’t literally have to be a space alien. They could be an escaped circus animal, time traveler or anyone else you can imagine.

Wrapping Up

Now that we’ve learned about ways to give our setting personality, it’s time to think about how you might want to apply this information to your work in progress. You might want to double-check descriptions you’ve already written in your novel or memoir. Is it doing at least one of the following?

  • Showing something about your main character’s personality and how they relate to the world around them.
  • Creating a sense that the landscape is alive through its interactions with the human characters.
  • Disorienting readers with surprising word choices and sentence structures, giving them a sense of newness.

If it’s a “no” to all of the above, it may be that your setting is, pardon the pun, fading into the background. Revising with what you know now will make your setting an active character in its own right.

Need more advice on making your writing come alive? Follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.

Posted in Uncategorized, writing prompts

3 Writing Prompts Inspired by Hemingway

We learn by doing, not from just hearing advice. Ernest Hemingway, that heavyweight of American literature, would agree with that more than anyone. Blog posts detailing writing tips from Ernest Hemingway are practically their own gene at this point. And they are so popular for a reason: Hemingway was full of writing tips that benefit beginner writers and established novelists alike.

But advice without practice will only get you so far. Today I’m sharing three Hemingway-inspired prompts that I often use with my students. Let’s start putting ideas into action!

One True Sentence

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

It’s certainly comforting to know that even Nobel Prize-winning writers like Ernest Hemingway experienced writer’s block and insecurity during their careers. And here he’s giving us his trick for getting the pen flowing again: writing just one true sentence. But what does he mean by “one true sentence?”

Let’s look at the first lines from some of his stories and see what similarities we can see in them.

  • It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. — “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”
  • It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. — “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
  • He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill. — “A Day’s Wait”

What commonalities did you notice in these sentences? They all introduce both the setting and the character. The sentences are all simply written, but also full of concrete details that you can see: the shadow of a tree, the green fly of the dining tent, the open windows.

We also get a picture of where the character or characters are in this space and what they are doing, even if we don’t learn anything else about them yet. This makes the reader feel like they are entering a scene that is already in progress. As Hemingway said, he never started a story as if he was presenting or introducing something. He threw the reader right into the action.

Writing Prompt

Spend a few minutes coming up with your own “true sentences.” Remember that each should have a character and a setting. Try to include one concrete visual detail in each sentence.

Write How You Really Feel

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it.

― Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Here Hemingway makes a distinction between what you feel and what society expects you to feel. We’ve all experienced this at some point or another. Maybe you got your dream job, but instead of feeling happy you felt sad because it meant moving across the country away from friends and family. Or a loved one died after a long illness and rather than feeling sad, you felt relieved that they were finally out of pain.

Complicated emotions make good fiction. And Hemingway advises that we don’t simplify our emotions just because it makes the story easier to write.

He also discusses how writers make readers experience emotions. He says that we do that by following the sequence of actions that led to the emotion as closely as possible.

Let’s look at an example:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”― A Moveable Feast

In this passage from Hemingway’s memoir, he describes the vivid, sensual tastes of oysters and wine. Hemingway was feeling depressed and empty earlier in the chapter, but because the reader followed him through this experience, we can understand the change in his mood.

Writing Prompt

Write about a time in your life when your emotions felt different from what you were “supposed” to feel. Follow the sequence of actions that led up to that feeling so that the reader experiences the emotion with you.

Be Brief

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

― Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Hemingway is famous for his strong but simple prose. Let’s look at another example:

“She was crying. I comforted her and she stopped crying. But outside it kept on raining.”― A Farewell to Arms

We know, without Hemingway telling us directly, that the woman is still sad, even though she stopped crying. This is what he means when he refers to the iceberg. Give the reader enough information that they can imagine the rest.

A poorly written setting can feel like a New Yorker cartoon. It’s a simple line drawing outlining a room, but it’s not a real place. It’s a caricature.

When you write a scene, you should know every detail. If your scene is in a restaurant kitchen, you should know what kind of food they serve, whether they are at peak hours or between meals, what languages the staff uses to speak to each other, how many cooks are old veterans and how many are students trying to make it through college. How many flies are buzzing around the garbage? What brand of rat poison is under the sink?

Inevitably, not all these details will fit into your scene. But if you provide just enough details, the reader will feel like this scene takes place in a real kitchen, not a caricature.

The same is true for your characters. You should know every detail about their lives, but most of it won’t end up in the final draft. Let’s see one final example:

“Going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”― The Sun Also Rises

In this tidbit of dialogue from Jake Barnes, the narrator of The Sun Also Rises, we learn a lot about his personality and his attitude toward life. We can envision a lot about his past from this brief passage, and there’s a hint of tragedy that made him this way.

Writing Prompt

Choose your favorite “true sentence” that you wrote in the first exercise. Write the story that follows. Follow Hemingway’s advice about brevity and follow the sequence of actions that produce powerful emotions.

Wrapping Up

The only kind of writing is rewriting.

― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

One last piece of advice: your first draft is just one step. No matter how “truly” you write (to paraphrase Hemingway), you still have to revise your work. If you want more writing advice, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.

Posted in Uncategorized, writing prompts

My Favorite Prompt for Writer’s Block

Writer’s block happens for many reasons. Often, I know what I want to write and I have my goal, but when I sit down to write, I start thinking about the laundry I need to do or a stressful situation from work or some other distraction, and I just can’t focus on the task at hand.

This is a great prompt for redirecting attention. Think of it as a guided meditation for writers that will take you step by step away from your everyday life stressors to a new place where you can focus on creating. I like to do this prompt on the first day of class as it’s a great way to show my students how to clear their minds at the beginning of a writing session.

Step 1: Write Out Your Stress

This is the most important step. Take five minutes and write about anything that might distract you from creativity. This might be stressful situations at work or with your family, it might be the pile of laundry on your floor or your overwhelming to-do list. When I do this prompt in class, I inevitably write about my worries for the semester and any perceived awkwardness I might have had interacting with my students.

When we put our worries in an orderly form, they’re less likely to bother us for the rest of our writing session.

It’s important that you don’t censor yourself. Think of this as a diary entry that’s just for you.

Coming Up Next

For my own writing sessions, I usually just do this part of the prompt. If you already know what you want to write about, often this is all you need to get right to work. If you need more writing inspiration, continue on.

For the next steps of this prompt, we’ll use a piece of visual art to inspire our writing. I’ve used various photographs and paintings in my classes. I’m using one of my favorites here, but you can do these steps with any piece of artwork that appeals to you.

I encourage you to use a timer, and don’t spend too much time on any one step.

Giorgio de Chirico, “L’ enigma dell’ arrivo e del pomeriggio” (The Enigma of the Arrival and of the Afternoon)

Step 2: Focus on the Feelings

Spend a minute or two jotting down the emotional impression that the image makes on you. You can write either words or short phrases, but do not physically describe the image.

Step 3: Step Inside the Picture

Spend five minutes describing the image. Don’t limit yourself to what you can see, but use your imagination for all five senses. What does the air feel like? Hot and dry? Cold and windy? What about the smells and sounds of this place? How would the ground feel underfoot and what is the texture of the walls?

Try to imagine that you are really there, not just looking at a two-dimensional representation.

Step 4: Meet the Characters

Spend five minutes imagining two characters in this scene. They might be the ones that you can see in the image, or they could be someone else, outside the frame. I often do this exercise with images that don’t have people in them.

The important thing is to imagine what would motivate someone to be in this space. Why did they come here? Was it by choice? Were they born here? Do they want to leave or stay? What do they hope to get out of either going to staying? Think about what life goals your characters might have.

Make sure you answer these questions differently for your two distinct characters.

Step 5: Create a Scene

This is the final step. Now that you know a little bit about the setting and characters, spend ten minutes writing a scene that takes place in this picture.

The scene should feature a conflict between your two characters. There are many possibilities, depending on the backstories and life goals that you have chosen for them. A new-comer to the location might threaten the life ambitions of a long-term resident. A parent might want to prevent their child from leaving, or alternatively, encourage their child to leave for a better life.

You can re-use any of your favorite phrases or sentences from the previous steps in this stage.

Wrapping Up

Once you’ve finished, congratulate yourself on sticking it out and focusing on the new scene you’ve created. You might have ended up with a great flash fiction piece or the beginning of a longer story. But even if this piece of writing never sees the light of day again, you’ve learned several important lessons:

  • When life is intruding on your writing, spending a few minutes getting your feelings out can help you focus.
  • When you feel overwhelmed by a writing project, try breaking it into smaller and more manageable steps. You wouldn’t have been able to create the scene at the end without doing the pre-writing steps first.
  • Writing is a product of sitting down and getting the work down, not some magical muse appearing to inspire us.

Thanks for joining me for this journey today. If you want more writing advice and prompts like this one, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.