Monday, August 9, 2010

Notes on Writing: Jon Guenther

Copyright © 2008 by RjE Photography.
All rights reserved.

The Creation Story As a Guide For Setting

When you write a story I assume you must have some general idea of where that story takes place. If you're writing in a specific genre, such as science fiction, you might set the story in space (at least some) or maybe in a futuristic world. If you’re writing fantasy, you will most likely have to create an entire world peopled with mythical creatures and forests and marshes and castles. A Western? Well, that sort of speaks for itself, doesn't it? I think you get my point and this is why I maintain that setting is one of the first things you’ll need to consider for your story, because the place where the story occurs is already there, from the very first word really, and with certainty from the first paragraph.

Consider this line from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, which is the third sentence in the book: "They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railroad station and two miles from the nearest post office."

When we read further, we discover this Professor has a big house and servants. Right away we know that the four children are being sent to a large, spooky house that is remote from anything considered to be modern niceties of the time, which Lewis also informs us happens to be during World War II. We sense they are very small fish in a big pond, although we'll see them put into an even grander pond as the story progresses, a land called Narnia.

Now let's consider our created world. Talk about a setting! When God spoke the world into existence, He "set the stage" on which the drama of all mankind would play out; much like they dress a stage for a play, and now we come to the Creation Story as an allegory for this first chapter: setting. I've always chosen to view the Creation Story as sort of a painting, where God adds light and darkness, and separates it into day and night (Genesis 1:3-5); hence, we are given some reliable measure of time.

In the next few verses, God creates the heavens (or the water vapor in the form of clouds) and sky (v. 6) and the ground and oceans (v.7-10). In doing so, He separates the geographical boundaries, which gives us some idea of where we are. Having a good sense of where you are is crucial to the setting of your story. If you don’t know where your characters are, how do you know where they're going, or can go, or what their limitations are during travel?

Beginning with verse 11, God creates the vegetation, which includes plants and flowers and trees of every kind. This arrays the setting with personality and vibrant colors. This led me to conclude that setting, in many respects, is something you must almost treat like a character in your story. It has personality.

God then creates the sun and moon and stars (v. 14-18), which acts as the playing field for mood. These are also tools by which mankind will ultimately mark logical and appropriate calls to action. He will harvest in the spring time and reap in the fall. He will hunt and procreate in the winter. He will play during the summer when he’s not tending to his crops or watering his herds. Really, then, this part of the setting dictates the "seasons" in which mankind will conduct his life.

Verses 20-22 and 23-24 remain some of my favorite because this is when God created all of the animal life that abounds on the Earth. Okay, so I happen to be an animal lover. In a later verse (v. 30), God gives man dominion over all the creatures. Deep in my spirit I have always believed animals are an exemplary reflection of God’s love. Take dogs, for example, who love their owners unconditionally. Indeed, scientists have proven that an abandoned dog might well sit in the same spot until it starves to death on nothing more than a belief its owner will eventually return for it! Thus, your setting should contain some reflection of God’s perfect love for people. Make God’s creatures a part of your setting: they are everywhere and will lend authenticity to your story.

Finally, we come to the climax of the creation story beginning with verse 25, when God creates man and woman in His own image. The ultimate product of his passion, the author and finisher of our faith, proves beyond any reasonable doubt that He is a family man. That's right: God's a family man. Did you ever stop to think that a family may be part of a story's setting, and not necessarily just characters? I’m talking about the social aspects of a family life. A house. A car. A backyard, as well as the general nature of the family relationships. Believe it or not, families have much to do in determining social setting. A single mother of four kids on welfare isn't likely to be living on the coast of California or in the Hamptons. And what happens when a large congregation of single parents on welfare make up the primary populace of a given area? That creates a social setting of a type, yes? The makeup of the family unit, therefore, provides a deeper insight into the particular setting and its impact on society. If you're in doubt, I suggest reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I think you might change your mind.

Let me give you an example of how families play into social setting. If a young man in a shirt and loosened tie with a ratty suit coat draped over his arm trudges tiredly up the sidewalk at the end of the day, there's nothing terribly revealing about that—we could make any number of assumptions about his social setting. However, if we know that he’s headed for a single-story house in a middle-class neighborhood, and nearly trips over a tricycle on his way to the door, we have a much better picture of the setting. He’s probably a man who has just returned home from a long day at the office, and he’s so tired he doesn't see a little kid's toy blocking the pathway. A home where we can assume his wife and child anxiously await his arrival. Or maybe he's a single father.

In summary, the following elements are those you should include to give the characters a set on which the drama shall unfold:
  • Sense of time (e.g., day or night)
  • Geographic boundaries (e.g., the mountains or oceans or beaches or prairies?)
  • Character/nature of the setting (e.g., the colors and smells and foliage; are we in a jungle or a forest, city or village; on a ranch or in a high-rise apartment?)
  • Lifestyle/season of story (i.e., business or home setting; formal or informal; workaday world or life of luxury?)
  • Animals/fauna (e.g., gorillas in the jungle or house full of domestic cats; beloved pets or dangerous wildlife; human-animal relationships intimate or confrontational?)Family/social setting (e.g., suburban home of married couple or Manhattan condo of a divorced father; orphanage/reform school or dwelling of 10 siblings; sprawling estates or urban projects?)

Will all of these things appear in your story in detail? Not likely. However, they are the chief elements of setting for any story because they are those components God included when He created the world. And even if you’re setting this on another planet, someone had to create all of it. Why not God? Our world certainly proves He’s qualified for the job!

There's an old cliché: "All the world's a stage." Yes, very true. So open your eyes and observe; carefully consider the best setting in which to tell your story. Then get to work and start jotting down all the most interesting aspects of that setting, those things you can use throughout the storytelling. You might have to do this research via the Internet, since it's possible you can't actually go to the heart of India or walk along the northern shores of the Siberian continent. Still, the information is there if you look for it, and feel free to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. That's what writers do. And please don't feel you have to reveal all of it in the first few pages. Better to pepper the setting throughout the story where it feels appropriate, like you might season a slow-cooked roast. That way, the reader can sample a bit of the setting with every, delectable bite.

Copyright © 2008 by Jon Guenther. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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