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Get Unblocked! NaNoWriMo Insights, Week 3: Where in the World is NaNoWriMo?

November 21, 2014

We’re back with Hannah Sternberg and her great insights, creative writing games, and key tips and tools for unblocking your mind and getting down to writing!  This week, workshop attendees focused on setting, and how to break out of “cardboard cut-out” descriptions to build more believable, complete worlds.  People have been having such a blast at these workshops, we’ll be extending beyond NaNoWriMi with a creative writing class at CHAW starting in January–keep an eye on our website for more info.  For now, we hope NaNoWriMo is wrapping up wonderfully for you, and please drop by our final NaNoWriMo workshop on Monday at Pound the Hill to end it on a great note.  More info HERE.  Over to you, Hannah!

“Take a Walk!”

In this week’s NaNoWriMo workshop, we talked about setting. How can setting shape your story, and how can you use the unique element of your story’s setting to jumpstart your project when you feel stuck?

The first step is to analyze how you describe your setting. My personal pitfall is that I see stories and places so vividly in my mind, I forget that the reader doesn’t see them too, unless I go out of my way to paint the picture, so I rush through my story and have to fill in those descriptive details later. Another danger is settling for a caricature or cardboard cut-out version of your setting, by only sketching out the most obvious and well-known details about it. Writers can fall into this pattern, even when it’s a place they’re very familiar with – in fact, some of the writers in the biggest danger of fumbling this way are the ones who are using real-life settings, because they don’t assume they have to describe the setting with as much attention to detail as a fantasy writer who has to build the setting from the ground up in the reader’s mind. Details of setting aren’t confined to physical features, either – local culture and customs, speech patterns, and history are all an important part of setting that should be filled out to create a textured, complete image in a reader’s mind.

To take a closer look at how you describe places, try a simple game with a friend or alone. Pick a place, and name the five most obvious descriptors for it. Now, try to describe the place without using any of those five things. For example, try to describe Washington, DC to someone without using the words “capital,” “monuments,” “politics,” “Smithsonian,” or “government.” If all you can think of to describe your setting are the five most obvious details about it, you’re probably using a caricature or building a cardboard cut-out version of your setting. You need to either think more deeply and creatively about how to embody the spirit of the place, or you need to choose a new setting for your story that you’re more familiar with. Stories don’t always have to be set in the place you grew up in or lived in, now or in the past, but you should haveenough familiarity with your setting that you can describe it in detail. If you’re feeling very stuck in your story, consider the possibility that you don’t know your setting well enough to build a convincing story in it – that may be tripping you up without you even realizing it.

Setting does more than just paint a picture for the reader, though. Well used, a convincing setting can become an inanimate character in your story. As I mentioned above, setting is more than physical details about a place – it also includes the social rules and expectations that come with the time and place in which you choose to set your story. These can create powerful sets of conventions (which we discussed last week) that, when they come into conflict, drive your plot. Some famous stories are so closely tied to their settings that it’s virtually impossible to imagine the same story set elsewhere – like Jack London’s White Fang or Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Other stories, like the plays of Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice, are famous for their versatility – they’ve been retold and adapted in a wide range of places and times. However, even in those instances, the new setting given to those stories often highlights a fresh angle of the original or heightens the tension in unexpected ways.

To explore this idea of using setting to drive plot, we played another game this week. Each person named a book in which the setting is an integral part of the plot. Their teammates then challenged them to re-imagine that book’s plot in a new setting that they chose for the first player. Check out some of the creative combos from this week, and perhaps one will inspire you to try something new with your story’s setting!

The Poisonwood Bible set in Los Angeles

The Dark Knight set in the Panama Canal Zone

Dracula set in the Arundel Mills Mall

Gone with the Wind set in Baghdad

The Lord of the Flies set in Antarctica

The Shining set in post-Katrina New Orleans

The Scarlet Letter set in modern corporate America

Happy writing, and I hope to see you again next week for our last session, on where to go next, once you’ve finished your book!