Tag Archives: how to write setting

How to Create Meaningful Spaces in Stories

28 Aug
Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author's experience growing up on the trail of a revivalist preacher who would eventually be sentenced to prison time.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

The fall semester has now begun in earnest, which means that, in creative writing workshops, students will soon be turning in their first submissions. Whether they’re writing fiction or creative nonfiction, one of the most difficult aspects of a piece to talk about is setting. In drafts, it’s often boring, dragging down the story. Or it’s nonexistent (the dreaded white room story). Though these problems are common, advice for fixing them can be difficult to give. It’s not enough to say, “Cut some of it” or “You need a setting.”

This exercise, based on the memoir Holy Ghost Girl by Donna M. Johnson, shows how setting can be made meaningful and dramatic in any type of story, true or not. You can read the full excerpt here.

How the Story Works

One reason that setting often feels difficult to write is that the places we’re considering feel random, as though drawn from a hat of Places to Set a Scene. Sometimes, the solution is to find a place that the characters find meaningful. As real people, we travel through a variety of places every day, but all of us have a handful of places that feel like home, where we are our best or truest selves. Watch how Johnson sets up such a place in the first chapter of the memoir:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy.

This passage establishes the tent as special in a couple of ways. First, it stresses how unremarkable the setting is: a field of trash at the edge of town. Yet that trash is appropriate because the people who gather there feel “too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did.” This is an example of characters finding meaning in the things that surround them. Real people do this all the time. They develop attachments to the places they live: small towns, big cities, flat plains, mountains, deserts, rainy places, blue states, and red states. In all likelihood, they didn’t consciously choose the place where they live. They were born there and stayed or arrived there out of some necessity. Yet they often appropriate aspects of the place as statements of personal character—the people who live here are good/hardworking/smart/real/whatever. This is exactly what Johnson is doing in this passage.

Secondly, the passage shows the people creating a space that demonstrates some quality about them: “At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us…” It’s a cliché that you can learn a lot about people by stepping into their homes, and this passage reveals the truth in the cliché.

Once the memoir establishes the importance of the tent, it spends several paragraphs showing how the tent was put up, the effort and mechanics involved. Because the place matters, so does the upkeep of the place, and it’s in these passages that we learn crucial information about the people who gather there:

Local churches sent out volunteers, but most of the work was done by families who followed Brother Terrell from town to town, happy to do the Lord’s work for little more than a blessing and whatever Brother Terrell could afford to pass along to them. When he had extra money, they shared in it. He had a reputation as a generous man who “pinched the buffalo off every nickel” that passed through his hands. He employed only two to four “professional” tent men, a fraction of the number employed by organizations of a similar size. The number of employees remained the same over the years even as the size of the tents grew larger. “World’s largest tent. World smallest tent crew,” was the joke.

Because the tent is so central to the people’s identities, it’s also central to the story. One chapter begins with unwanted visitors to the tent (the Klan). Another chapter offers some children, including Johnson, the opportunity to escape from the tent for a while and swim in a local pool. In both scenes, the tension results from the changes to setting. The rules—the usual way of being—are upended, which produces a story to tell.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a meaningful space using Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson as a model:

  1. Choose a character. It’s tempting to start with the setting itself, but unless you’re writing a story like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” where setting is the entire point, the place is only as important as the character believes it to be. So, choose a character that you’ve already created, and let’s figure out what that character believes is important about the setting.
  2. Locate the character in his/her surroundings. Start with the general. Where does the character spend his/her time? Think about neighborhood, work, commute, church—the basic settings of our lives.
  3. Identify what is unremarkable about those surroundings. We tend to start with what is remarkable or unusual. But it’s often the case that people become inured to the peculiarities of where they live—they see them every day and take them for granted. Instead, try listing the things that the character sees or notices every day. What are the things that irritate the character about his/her setting?
  4. Let the character appropriate those aspects as personal qualities. Ironically, it’s the little, irritating things in our worlds that we often feel the most attachment to. Johnson writes about how the people who gathered in the tent identified with the trash strewn around them. Try writing a sentence that begins this way: “We were the kind of people” or “They were the kind of people” or “She was the kind of person who…” Can you connect that kind of people they are to those irritating, commonplace parts of their surroundings? Here’s an easy example of this: “We were the kind of people who didn’t need a lot of money.”
  5. Allow the character to create a personal space in those surroundings. In Johnson’s memoir, the worshippers construct a sacred place in the midst of the trash, and that place shines into the darkness. In other words, the place makes manifest the hidden, interior parts of the people who gather in it. People do this all the time. Sometimes we literally build shrines to the things that are closest to our hearts. Other times, we build dens or interior spaces that allow us to be our truest selves: they’re full of books or NFL gear or Precious Moments figurines. What shelter does your character build to protect against the elements—physical, emotional, and spiritual?

Good luck!

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How to Make Small, Intimate Stories into Page Turners

14 Oct
Michael Yang's story "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless" appeared in Amazon's literary series, "Day One."

Michael Yang’s story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” appeared in Amazon’s literary series, “Day One.”

When we think about drama, it’s tempting to believe that bigger is better. A story about a marriage on the rocks is good, but a story with married characters throwing rocks at each other is even better, right? Not necessarily. There’s a reason that some journal editors ban stories about characters who die. It’s important to explore the range of dramatic possibilities that exist between morning coffee and evening murder.

For an example of how domestic dramas can be made exciting, check out Michael Yang’s story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” The lurid sensationalism of the title draws you in, but the drama that holds you is smaller and more intimate than a tabloid headline. The story was published as part of Amazon’s “Day One” literary series, and you can read the first pages and buy the story for $1 at Amazon.

How the Story Works

I’ve mentioned a number of times on this blog the Ron Carlson quote about a story having two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Usually, this means that a dramatic plot (ninja fights dragon in cage match) is given depth and resonance by the nuances of the story’s world (ninja can’t pass final ninja qualifying test, can’t get the girl, can’t make his parents happy, can’t get along with his more successful brother and sister). The world, then, gives the story texture.

But what if the opposite is also true? What if small, intimate plots can benefit from exciting worlds? What difference would the world make to a story about two characters working in a restaurant and trying to pay bills—one story is set in Kansas City, and the other is set in Pompeii just before Mt. Vesuvius erupts. Context matters—and that is exactly the truth that Yang uses in his story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.”

The story is about a woman who has moved to Los Angeles so that her 9-year-old can pursue her dream of becoming an actress. It might seem odd to view a Hollywood story as mundane, but Yang sets the story in the grind-it-out world of television commercials: standing in line to audition, dealing with directors and other parents, and eating (and not eating) in order to look the part. Plus, the story isn’t concerned with a make-or-break moment for the girl, Sara. Something happens, of course, and it may or may not determine Sara’s future, but the immediate impact is felt most acutely by her mother. In other words, it’s a domestic story with small, intimate stakes.

So, look what Yang inserts into the story’s world: On the first page, the mother buys a grocery story tabloid magazine with the headline, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” After she feeds her daughter dinner, she reads the article:

I open the glossy pages. The first body was discovered off a Sacramento highway a decade ago, a homeless man. There was hardly any press, only a small article in the back pages, but two years later the second body, a well-known former prostitute for celebrities, lapped up on the shore of the Los Angeles River, wrists and ankles bound. The only connection between the two crimes was the headless nature of their bodies. For a while, the Hollywood Lopper had been an LA secret, because of how infrequently he struck, but the killings ramped up as he began garnering news. The latest murder was a month ago: a ubiquitous character actor who always played the weaselly, cocksure best friend— the one who tries to steal the hero’s girl, only to get humiliated in the end.

After we learn the dramatic, Vesuvius-erupts part of the world, we learn about its personal ramifications:

On TV the news anchors prattle on about a besieged Los Angeles, with celebrities blinking under bright lights, stars turned into martyrs now that the Hollywood Lopper has moved up the entertainment food chain, while we no-names, the real victims, the people on the edges who had been enticed and promised celebrity, toil in obscurity through our ordinary lives.

In short, Yang has taken a small, intimate story and set it against a backdrop of 1) murder and 2) celebrities versus ordinary people. There  is a serial killer on the loose, but no one will care unless he kills someone notable. His murders have ascended the Hollywood social ladder, but there’s no guarantee that he won’t kill an unknown person next, like a certain nine-year-old trying out for commercials—or her mother. What makes the story beautiful is that it keeps the serial killer in the background (as part of the world) and foregrounds the story about a mostly oblivious girl chafing at the limits placed on her by her concerned mother.

That is how you can use a dramatic world to make an intimate story more exciting.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a small, intimate story more exciting by giving it a dramatic world, using “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” by Michael Yang as a model:

  1. Choose a mundane story. Perhaps it’s one you’ve already written. Or, you could choose one of the many usual domestic plot lines: marriage drama, relationship drama, parent/child drama, money drama, extended-family drama. Regardless, you’re looking for a story that makes you worry that it’s not exciting/dramatic/sexy enough. Setting aside issues of fiction written by men vs women (and the tendency to dismiss domestic stories), this is a worry that most writers have: is our story interesting enough. Why should anyone read our story?
  2. Choose a dramatic backdrop. If you’re writing a short story, this might mean choosing something to exist in the background: noise that’s buzzing in the characters’ heads. It could be something unusual and threatening like a serial killer on the loose. It could be a significant election or a historical moment like the first moon landing. If you’re writing a novel, you might use the larger arc of the story (throw the ring into Mt. Doom, return the painting The Goldfinch) as a backdrop for an intimate moment or minor arc. Even though the action may be small, it’s cast against a much larger story that gives it weight.
  3. Watch for a moment to unite the story and backdrop. Michael Yang does this when he writes that “we no-names, the real victims, the people on the edges who had been enticed and promised celebrity, toil in obscurity through our ordinary lives.” Give your characters a chance to notice the backdrop, just as the mother in Yang’s story reads about celebrities in the tabloid newspaper. That moment can have many emotional angles. In a story set in Pompeii, one character could look out her window while eating dinner with her children and think, “Oh no.” Another character could glance away from her cheating husband, see the smoke, and think, “Thank god.” This moment will likely be brief. It may happen more than once, just as the mother in Yang’s story thinks about the serial killer more than once, but when she does, it’s to refocus our attention on the importance of the intimate drama in front of her.

Good luck!

How to Create Meaningful Spaces in Stories

30 Sep
Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author's experience growing up on the trail of a revivalist preacher who would eventually be sentenced to prison time.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table.

In theory, this advice should be easy to follow, but I can remember my days as a MFA student when I would spin my wheels for days puzzling out which setting would be best and worrying that I was choosing the wrong one. Like most writing “rules,” the theory is easier than the application. So, how can we create setting without driving ourselves crazy?

Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, was published in 2011 to rave reviews. The New York Times called it “enthralling” and “a sure bet.” The book is about Johnson’s experience growing up in a family that followed a traveling tent revival led by the preacher David Terrell. The sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear. You can read them here.

How the Story Works

One reason that setting often feels difficult to write is that the places we’re considering feel random, as though drawn from a hat of Places to Set a Scene. Sometimes, the solution is to find a place that the characters find meaningful. As real people, we travel through a variety of places every day, but all of us have a handful of places that feel like home, where we are our best or truest selves. Watch how Johnson sets up such a place in the first chapter of the memoir:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy.

This passage establishes the tent as special in a couple of ways. First, it stresses how unremarkable the setting is: a field of trash at the edge of town. Yet that trash is appropriate because the people who gather there feel “too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did.” This is an example of characters finding meaning in the things that surround them. Real people do this all the time. They develop attachments to the places they live: small towns, big cities, flat plains, mountains, deserts, rainy places, blue states, and red states. In all likelihood, they didn’t consciously choose the place where they live. They were born there and stayed or arrived there out of some necessity. Yet they often appropriate aspects of the place as statements of personal character—the people who live here are good/hardworking/smart/real/whatever. This is exactly what Johnson is doing in this passage.

Secondly, the passage shows the people creating a space that demonstrates some quality about them: “At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us…” It’s a cliche that you can learn a lot about people by stepping into their homes, and this passage reveals the truth in the cliche.

Once the memoir establishes the importance of the tent, it spends several paragraphs showing how the tent was put up, the effort and mechanics involved. Because the place matters, so does the upkeep of the place, and it’s in these passages that we learn crucial information about the people who gather there:

Local churches sent out volunteers, but most of the work was done by families who followed Brother Terrell from town to town, happy to do the Lord’s work for little more than a blessing and whatever Brother Terrell could afford to pass along to them. When he had extra money, they shared in it. He had a reputation as a generous man who “pinched the buffalo off every nickel” that passed through his hands. He employed only two to four “professional” tent men, a fraction of the number employed by organizations of a similar size. The number of employees remained the same over the years even as the size of the tents grew larger. “World’s largest tent. World smallest tent crew,” was the joke.

Because the tent is so central to the people’s identities, it’s also central to the story. One chapter begins with unwanted visitors to the tent (the Klan). Another chapter offers some children, including Johnson, the opportunity to escape from the tent for a while and swim in a local pool. In both scenes, the tension results from the changes to setting. The rules—the usual way of being—are upended, which produces a story to tell.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a meaningful space using Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson as a model:

  1. Choose a character. It’s tempting to start with the setting itself, but unless you’re writing a story like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” where setting is the entire point, the place is only as important as the character believes it to be. So, choose a character that you’ve already created, and let’s figure out what that character believes is important about the setting.
  2. Locate the character in his/her surroundings. Start with the general. Where does the character spend his/her time? Think about neighborhood, work, commute, church—the basic settings of our lives.
  3. Identify what is unremarkable about those surroundings. We tend to start with what is remarkable or unusual. But it’s often the case that people become inured to the peculiarities of where they live—they see them every day and take them for granted. Instead, try listing the things that the character sees or notices every day. What are the things that irritate the character about his/her setting?
  4. Let the character appropriate those aspects as personal qualities. Ironically, it’s the little, irritating things in our worlds that we often feel the most attachment to. Johnson writes about how the people who gathered in the tent identified with the trash strewn around them. Try writing a sentence that begins this way: “We were the kind of people” or “They were the kind of people” or “She was the kind of person who…” Can you connect that kind of people they are to those irritating, commonplace parts of their surroundings? Here’s an easy example of this: “We were the kind of people who didn’t need a lot of money.”
  5. Allow the character to create a personal space in those surroundings. In Johnson’s memoir, the worshippers construct a sacred place in the midst of the trash, and that place shines into the darkness. In other words, the place makes manifest the hidden, interior parts of the people who gather in it. People do this all the time. Sometimes we literally build shrines to the things that are closest to our hearts. Other times, we build dens or interior spaces that allow us to be our truest selves: they’re full of books or NFL gear or Precious Moments figurines. What shelter does your character build to protect against the elements—physical, emotional, and spiritual?

Good luck!

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