Thank you for inviting me to participate in Ingredients in Storytelling!
What are the steps in creating a setting for your story?
For me, setting comes from the characters and their conflict. When I get enough clues, I can see the setting in my head. Boston was ideal for A Sudden Gust of Gravity. Artsy and traditional, a melting pot of cultures, a mixture of old and new, young and not-so-young, struggling students and well-to-do folks who live in swanky condos on the waterfront. And I’d spent a lot of time there. Whenever possible, I prefer to let the details of the setting build organically. I let the characters just be there—let Christina practice her juggling in a park next to the Charles River, let Devon chaperone his five-year-old nephew through Faneuil Hall—and I describe the setting as I need to.
There is a fine line between creating a visible backstory and a hidden backstory of your characters. What are the steps in balancing it out? What should you not do?
It’s a really delicate balancing act. I think what you choose to leave out is as important, sometimes even more so, than what you leave in. If you paint a picture well enough, you can show a character who has had a particular backstory, and you don’t need every small detail. Sometimes you don’t even need to say it at all. This is a discipline I’m learning more about. Putting in enough clues so a reader gets it, gets the background of the character, without spoon-feeding him or her too much information. Trusting that the reader will get it. I can’t help remembering that fashion advice about how to tell if you’re wearing too many accessories—turn around quickly to the mirror and remove the first thing that catches your eye.
How much is too much conflict? And what do you do about it when it’s not working in the plot?
If it confuses the reader, you’ve got too much conflict. Subplots are great, and stultifying, tightrope-walking, how will the characters ever get out of this predicament plot threads can make for exciting reading, but eventually (and this depends on whether you’re writing a standalone or a series) those threads need resolving…or at least leave the reader feeling that they will be resolved. Nothing disappoints me more in a story—and I mean nothing—than important plot threads left hanging. I feel like the reader has let me down. When it’s not working in my stories, I’ll go back to my spreadsheets and scene lists and ask myself some big and sometimes painful questions. How important is that conflict? Does the whole story hang on resolving it? Does that character (or that subplot) really belong in this book? Does the book need to be longer in order to give myself the space to work all this out? Or should I cut two of the subplots and make it a novella? Should it really be a series instead of a standalone? You know, the basic things that writers drive themselves crazy about. This is where early feedback can really help me. A trusted reader can give me the objective criticism I really need for making those crucial decisions.
What are the steps in creating believable characters and dialogue?
For me, it’s all about empathy. I have to get to know those characters so well, I feel like I’m sitting right next to them. Or even standing in their shoes. Sometimes I draw on people in real life, letting them be the armature for creating a character. I imagine conversations with them, ask them questions about their lives, invite them into my space. Some people think that’s a little weird, especially that guy in the car next to me at the stoplight, thinking I’m in there talking to myself, but it works for me. I love writing dialogue, and often that’s how I’ll start writing scenes in a novel—hearing the dialogue in my head, back and forth, filling the rest of it out later. Speaking of dialogue, (ha) I’m a chronic eavesdropper. Not in a stalker-ish way, but with an ear toward how people in real life actually speak to each other. Good dialogue is a representation of real speech, and one of the best ways to learn how to write better dialogue is to listen to how people talk. Once I start hearing those characters, I want to let them be themselves—if all the characters speak the same way all the time, it would be hard for a reader to tell them apart, and the whole story might start sounding a little dull. Margie, the umpire in my novel The Call, comes from a baseball family. She speaks plainly and swears a ton. Her umpiring partner, Wes, is bookish and speaks more carefully. During their conversations, it’s clear who is speaking when. For me, letting the characters drive the story—and character-driven does not mean there’s no attention to plot—helps me get to know them, which helps the reader get to know them…and empathize with them, and root for them.
What is the advice you would give to a writer when they get stuck on a specific scene or comes across a road block in their plot?
I’m still learning this lesson. Sometimes I move on to another part of the book, and that helps in the short term, but that knot is still going to be there waiting for me. I know I’ll have to get into it eventually. Sometimes I’ll come at it from another angle. Write it in another character’s point of view and see if that gives me a different perspective. When I need to tackle a road block, sometimes I’ll get out my sketchpad and start drawing. “What-ifs” sometimes help, too. I’ll do some freewriting about it: what if this or that happens? Often that opens up the possibilities. It’s all about the possibilities.
Laurie Boris is a freelance copyeditor. She’s also been writing fiction for almost thirty years and is the author of seven novels, two novellas, and a collection of flash fiction. She’s the recipient of several awards including two indieBRAG medallions. When she’s not playing with the fictional people in her head, Laurie enjoys baseball, reading, and avoiding housework.
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