Monday, July 28, 2008

Will It Blend?

Tip of the Day: Plain yogurt, cucumber, chives, and salt in the blender makes a quick, refreshing summer snack. The new iPhone in the blender does not.

I posted last week about a unique setting inspiring stories. If you’re writing a novel, though, you’re stringing together lots of settings. It’s tempting (for me, anyway) to write a lot of different settings, just to keep things interesting. Plus it gives one the illusion of action. “Look, the plot must be moving forward, we’ve never been to the football field before.”

I’ve been thinking about multiple settings differently lately. Yes, each setting itself is important, but how do they fit together? In the words of my favorite webcam show, will it blend?

Think of multiple settings in a novel like multiple fabrics in a quilt. My mother quilts, so I can think in those terms. She goes to the fabric store knowing what her finished project should feel like: warm and cozy, or fun and light-hearted, or modern and urban. And she knows what quilt pattern she’s selected so she knows how many different kinds of fabric to buy. She picks materials she likes, natch, but each fabric can’t just be interesting in itself. It has to fit into the quilt as a whole. Sometimes she has to compromise. She wants more blue in a boy’s baby quilt so she picks a so-so fabric. Sometimes she makes room for a fabric she loves, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s not enough to scoop up a bunch of material, not to really create art.

So how, then, can a group of settings be structured? The answer is, of course, at your local library. Isn’t it always? How are settings structured in your favorite books? Here are some patterns I like the most.

The Town. In the town pattern, the town itself is so interesting that it spills into every smaller setting within the book. A great example of this is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Forks, WA is so wet, isolated, menacing. No matter where you are—the beach, the woods, even the school parking lot—it’s hard to forget the sense of place hanging over you. Hey, vampires and werewolves managed to survive in Forks because of its awful weather. That’s an interesting town.

I think this common pattern is why so many books take place in Manhattan. It’s like places in Manhattan are more interesting because they’re in Manhattan. You go buy a bottle of water in a YA book, you have to do it in a downtown bodega.

The Theme. In the theme pattern, every setting has something in common. In e. lockhart’s Fly on the Wall, the main settings are the Manhattan School of Arts, the museum, and the MC’s bedroom, which is crammed with her art books, figurines, and models. Every setting is related to each other with the art theme.

I’m considering applying this pattern to my current WIP, running a thread through my settings of attempts at calmness: a library, a bonsai tree, rounded corners, pale blue colors. This probably won’t emerge until like the 18th revision.

The Continuum. In the continuum, the settings move from one extreme to the other. Life as We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeiffer, starts with the MC thinking about the Olympics. What could be more global than that? By the end of the novel, the MC and her family are confined to one room.

I could see the continuum model working for a story about a journey, too, with the settings moving from civilized to more and more rugged and treacherous. Seasons can move settings along the continuum, too, from summer to winter. I just read a 100-year-old romance novel I picked up at an antique store, and the settings moved from the West to Manhattan (there it is again) to Europe, to demonstrate the increasing sophistication of the heroine.

Those are three common patterns: the town, the theme, the continuum. I’m missing patterns, I’m sure of it. If you think of one, definitely share it! It’s a fun thing to notice when you’re reading. I wonder how many readers ever see these patterns?

-- Kate, Miss Apprentice Writer


Anonymous said...

Loved this:Look, the plot must be moving forward, we’ve never been to the football field before.”

In my revision letter, my editor was all, "do they need to be in the dining room all the time?"

I swear, i must have eight or ten meals. Why else would four people get together in a gazillion square foot castle? Guess I need to get more creative, huh?

Mandy Hubbard

DeenaML said...

Like Mandy, I also loved:
“Look, the plot must be moving forward, we’ve never been to the football field before.”
I mean, DUH! Of course the plot is moving forward! :)

And Mandy, my CPs are always telling me my characters need to spend less time around food! :)

Great post, Kate, and definitely something I need to think about. Right now in my BETH draft, I think I've got The Town pattern working. Showing how small it is, how everything -- and everyone -- are in walking distance and know your business.

Lisa Schroeder said...

I love this post. I never thought of it like this before, but you're right. :)

amuse me said...

Along with getting a bunch of good info out of the post, I really enjoyed watching some of things blended on Will It Blend -- how crazy is that?

Emily Marshall said...

This is excellent Kate. I suffer from thinking that more settings equal moving forward. I just realized in one of my old books, I need to use a certain setting more than once. Otherwise it sort of doesn't make sense of having it there in the first place.