Tag Archives: story setting

The Read to Write Craft Seminar

8 Sep
Michael Noll

Join Michael Noll for the Read to Write Craft Seminar: Sept. 21, 2-6 p.m. at The Writing Barn in South Austin. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Choose the price that fits your budget. To register, click here.

Do these writing problems sound familiar?

  • You start a story but quit after three pages. Or quit a novel after 70 pages.
  • Your characters never seem to find themselves in a conflict. They seem flat, no matter how much you write about them.
  • Your dialogue goes nowhere. Your characters all sound the same and agree agree with each other too much.
  • Your stories or chapters all begin in the morning, with the character waking up. Your narratives are chained to the minute-by-minute progression of time.

Even great writers work at these challenges every day–the difference is that have learned strategies to deal with them. In this class, you can find out how they do it. We’ll look at excerpts from stories and novels from four different writers, with an eye toward discovering how they solve these problems.

The class is on Saturday, September 21, from 2-6 pm at the idyllic Writing Barn in South Austin.

To read a recap of a previous class, click here.

I hope you can join us for this practical, fun class.

Click here to sign up for the Read to Write Craft Seminar: September 21, 2-6 p.m. at the Writing Barn in South Austin. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Or for more information, email Michael Noll at michaelnoll1@gmail.com.

Click here to sign up for the Read to Write Craft Seminar. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Choose the price that fits your budget. Or for more information, email Michael Noll at michaelnoll1@gmail.com.

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Describe Setting Without Getting Lost in the Details

28 May
The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle is the debut novel from Jedah Mayberry.

The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle is the debut novel from Jedah Mayberry. You can read the opening pages here.

In a story or novel, how do you describe an entire town or geographical area without getting lost in the details?

Many writers have done it, memorably Toni Morrison in Sula and F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Add to that list Jedah Mayberry, whose debut novel, The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle, begins with a description of a small New England town that demonstrates how to distill history, culture, migration, geography, and demography into a single short passage.

The novel is new out from River Grove Press, and you can read the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

Ernest Hemingway famously claimed that the best writing omitted far more detail than it included–meaning that a story or novel resembles an iceberg, ninety percent of which is underwater. Critics have turned this idea into a theory for art, but, in truth, it merely describes an inevitable problem faced by all writers: if you’re writing what you know, then you know more than can fit into the story. But you can’t simply include and leave out details randomly. You need a method. Mayberry’s method in The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle becomes clear in the first sentence:

“The village of Preston is largely defined by the things it is not, by the things its expanse of working farms and decaying historic landmarks serve to divide.”

The novel tells us explicitly how it will organize details about the town. Any that do not fit into the idea of absence or division are left out. The Great Gatsby does something similar in its opening description of East and West Egg:

“I lived at West Egg, the—well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.”

In this passage, the writing quickly moves to descriptions of Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan. Those characters stand for the difference between the two places. As a result, the setting helps create character.

So that you can see how common this strategy is, here’s the opening of Sula by Toni Morrison:

“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.”

Morrison gives us her organizing principle right away: the way the neighborhood looks now versus the way it looked then. That difference helps introduce the story, which is in part about the relations between the people who once lived in the neighborhood and the ones who have turned it into a golf course.

In all of these examples, the writers clearly identify the way they will organize details about a town or area. A place that is vast and filled with innumerable things is reduced to a single passage in a book. In other words, only the tip of the iceberg is revealed.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s follow the example set by Jedah Mayberry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison.

  1. Choose a town or area to describe.
  2. Write a definition of the town that creates two groups, a la Fitzgerald and Morrison. For instance: “Everybody there was dumb except for the cops.” Or, “The town had a railroad line running through the middle of it, but the division wasn’t between poor and rich but between people living in rundown shacks and people sleeping on the ground.”
  3. Now, try writing a definition of the town that identifies a broad organizing principle, a la Mayberry. For example: “The town was defined by the opportunities it had missed.” Or, “So many people had ended up in the town by accident that everything about the place seemed ruled by random chance.”
  4. Finally, describe the town. Use the definition as inspiration and as a guide for the details.

In both #2 and #3, you can switch the order around. So, you can write the definition but save it. List the details first and then finish the description with the definition. Either way you use the strategy, you’ll begin seeing it in almost every story and book that you read.

Good luck.

What We’ll Cover in The Read Well, Write Better Workshop

25 May
Michael Noll

Join Michael Noll for the Read Well, Write Better Workshop: June 1, 2-6 p.m. at The Writing Barn in South Austin. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Choose the price that fits your budget. To register, click here.

Here are 5 topics we’ll cover in the Read Well, Write Better Workshop on June 1:

How to Create a Unique Narrative Voice

How to Write Dialogue as a Duel

How to Write Dialogue as the Voice of a Community

Two Ways to Create Suspense with Setting

Three Ways to Move Through Time within a Scene

And here are 9 writers we’ll be learning from:

Aravind Adiga

Ron Carlson

Raymond Chandler

Don Delillo

Anne Enright

Dagoberto Gilb

Yiyun Li

Alice Munro

Francine Prose

Plus, everyone who registers for the class will bring a one-page excerpt from a story or novel that they love. As a class, we’ll create an exercise based on the excerpt.

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