Tag Archives: writing about place

How to Set the Rules Your Characters Must Live By

13 Aug
Shannon Thompson's novel "Minutes Before Sunset" was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July and tells the story of two young adults trying to balance their supernatural gifts with a desire to live in the human world.

Every story has rules. In comic books, the superheroes have certain powers and not others. In horror stories, monsters can be killed only with silver bullets or certain chants. In romances, the heroine falls for certain kinds of men and not others. Pam Houston wrote a novel titled Cowboys are My Weakness. The rules of the novel are announced before you even open the book. Every story ever written or told must announce the rules it will play by.

The trick, as a writer, is to show those rules without disrupting the narrative. Shannon A. Thompson sets the rules clearly and quickly in her Young Adult/Paranormal novel Minutes Before Sunset. You can read the first chapter here. 

How the Story Works

Once you’re aware of how stories set the rules that their characters must live by, you can’t avoid seeing it’s done. Whether the fiction is genre or literary, the need to impose boundaries and limitations on characters is the same.

Here’s an example from the title story of Ethan Rutherford’s excellent new collection The Peripatetic Coffin. The story’s about the crew of a Confederate submarine trying to break the Union blockade of the port of Charleston:

“On deck, we had an unobstructed view of what Augustus had dubbed our Tableau of Lessening Odds. The Federal blockade was stupefyingly effective. Union canonships patrolled the mouth of the harbor, just out of range, and sank anything we tried to send through with the insouciance of a bull swatting blackflies. At night, they resumed the bombardment of the city. High, arching incendiaries, numbering in the thousands, painted the sky. You felt the concussion in your chest.”

The world is imposing clear boundaries on the characters: literally, a blockade with cannon balls and bombs. At no point in the story will the characters be able to act as if these impediments do not exist.

But the boundaries and rules can be mental as well as physical. To see how, read these two excerpts from Shannon A. Thompson’s novel, Minutes Before Sunset:

“It was Independence Day, and I stood with my family on Willow Tree Mountain. They called it Willow Tree Mountain, but, in reality, it was Willow Tree Hill, and the town denied that reality.”

Here’s the second excerpt:

“I moved my foot closer to the edge of the hill. I wanted to ride the wind down to the crowd. I wanted to dance and smile. I wanted to throw my arms in the air and listen to the exploding fireworks. I wanted to run around in endless circles until I fell down from exhaustion. I wanted to enjoy everything.

But that couldn’t happen. It was impossible.”

In these two passages, we learn the fundamentals of the story: the town has an Ignorance-is-bliss attitude. The narrator would like to join the smiling townspeople, but, for a reason that will be revealed later, he’s prevented from doing so. This mental and physical limitation defines his character and determines how the story will move forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice setting the rules, using Minutes Before Sunset as a model:

  1. Choose a character and a world for that character to inhabit.
  2. Define the world with a single adjective: happy, sad, fearful, proud, bored, etc.
  3. Free write about that adjective. Your goal is to find an image of the world or the people in it that demonstrates the adjective, if possible without actually stating it. The image will set the rules for the world. Future descriptions of the world should adhere to this early image in some way. So, in Minutes Before Sunset, the town’s denial of the supernatural elements in its midst is suggested by the fact that it calls a hill a mountain. In Gone in 60 Seconds, the stovetop burns out of control to suggest Kip’s lack of control.
  4. Now, free write about the character. How does he/she feel about the image you just created? Try to find an action that suggests the character’s attitude toward the world. For instance, in The Hunger Games, the fact that Katniss sneaks through the fence in order to hunt suggests that she’s willing to break the rules to protect her family. Thus, the big event at the end of the first chapter—volunteering for the Games in place of her sister—feels like a natural extension of her character, of the attitude that we’ve already witnessed.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Marc Watkins

25 Jul
Marc Watkins

Marc Watkins’ story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won Boulevard’s 2008 “Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers” and was included in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses.

If you liked Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone or the movie based on the book, then you’ll want to keep an eye on Marc Watkins. He was born and raised in Missouri and writes about the down and out of the Ozarks. He currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, the writer Emily Howorth. His stories have appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small PressesBoulevardThird CoastTexas ReviewStoryQuarterly, and elsewhere. Recently, he served as a guest fiction editor for the 2012 Pushcart Prize Anthology. In his spare time he edits a website,The Rankings.

In this interview, Watkins discusses the challenge of creating hopeful characters in a hopeless place, the influence of Biblical language, and what it means to be a highly literate high school dropout.

(For an exercise based on his story “Two Midnights in a Jug” click here.)

Michael Noll

The story has an interesting line early on: “Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.” There’s a lot of fatalism and futility wrapped up in a line like that. It suggests that the people who reside in that place will not change. How do you create suspense in a story when the setting is resistant to the ingredient necessary for suspense: the possibility of change? I’m curious how you approached setting a story in such a place.

Marc Watkins

Even though the structure of the story is punctuated by fatalism, it is hope, even in its slightest form, which drives the story. Stories that are essentially static in surface action have to rely on the sublet conflicts to develop tension and create suspense. Each character in the story latches onto a sort of absurd personal fantasy as a means of escape: Margret Jean thinks that a pill will save her broken marriage; Cordell believes that keeping the family together on the land that he lost is key to getting it back, even when a fire rains down ash and kills all the crops; and then there’s Abe, who believes his key to escaping his family is going to work for the very company that caused the fire to destroy the land.

I finished the story before I added the first graph. I like framing stories, especially those that use place as a major part of their structure, and trying to explain the environment by describing its rituals and cultures.

Michael Noll

The story’s point of view borders on omniscient, which is rare for any contemporary American work, let alone a short story. What led you to use that POV?

Marc Watkins

“Two Midnights in a Jug” was inspired by the biblical story of Job, and it was also the first time I’d ever written a third-person omniscient type of story. The voice basically fit the narrative, so I went with it as one of those crazy experiments that you’re supposed to engage in when tackling something wholly alien and new. The voice may have its roots in a church pew. I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school for several years. They’d send us to two or three masses each week, and I guess that voice from the pulpit, that sort of weird Bible voice stuck in my brain, even when all other aspects of my faith faded.

Michael Noll

The source of the title "Two Midnights in a Jar"

A saying from the Dust Bowl inspired the title “Two Midnights in a Jug.” You can read about an editor who hated the title at Marc Watkins’ website.

On your blog, you wrote about a journal editor who disliked the title because it didn’t make literal sense. In your blog post, you revealed that the phrase “Two midnights in a jug” comes from a Dust-Bowl era description of the blackness of the sky during a storm. There is no mention of this in the story. Do you think it’s necessary for writers to cue readers into the meanings behind the allusions in a work? In other words, are you okay with readers wondering what the title means?

Marc Watkins

The story’s title was actually the last phrase in the final sentence of the story, but it changed because one good piece of advice I picked up from Debra Monroe was to never repeat a title within the confines of a story. The title should encapsulate the world of the story, and when it’s told more than once it risks falling flat like a joke with a punch line told twice. I’m fine with readers left wondering what the title means. I think we all read for challenges and for curiosity, grand or small.

Michael Noll

This story is set in a real place—Eminence, Missouri. Frankly, when I googled the town, I was surprised to find that it was real. Your portrayal of it in the story is so bleak that I assumed that you’d made it up. Obviously the characters in this story don’t seem like the type who might encounter a story in a literary journal, but what about Eminence’s more educated residents? The internet has made the world a small place. Do you worry about what people might think of the way they’ve been portrayed?

Marc Watkins

I’m a walking contradiction; I have a Master’s degree and a G.E.D. In its own private way “Two Midnights in a Jug” manages to convey a level of honesty about how I felt after dropping out of high school. I never grew up in a trailer, but the moment I told people that I was from Missouri and had dropped out, someone asked if I’d been raised in one, and I felt ostracized by the stereotype, so I decided to follow that stereotype down a rabbit hole in the story. The narrative’s bleakness also had to do with my father. He had entered into the final stage of a disease that would claim his life in less than a year.

Even though Eminence, Missouri, is a real town, with real people, “Two Midnights in a Jug” is fiction. As writers we live in conjured spaces that are just as “real” to us emotionally as any physical event or place, and this emotional truth, or as Tim O’Brien calls it “story truth,” matters most. It’s the magic we seek.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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