Sunday, October 12, 2014

1001 Ways to Wreck a Story - Part Nine

Sherry here, with another tip on how to avoid wrecking your story. This one grows out of the mildly famous "white room syndrome," possibly first mentioned in that critical manual for SF workshops, the Turkey City Lexicon. In that instance, the main character wakes up in a "white room"--largely because the writer has failed to invent the details of that setting but has forged ahead with the story anyway. This problem is even more insidious than that initial white room, however. Maybe we'll call this one the Out-of-Focus-Background.

The Problem
You know that portrait photography technique, where the focus of the picture is sharp and clear on the main subject, but all else around them is a fuzzy blur of colours? That may produce a beautiful portrait, but it doesn't work so well for stories. In a story with an Out-of-Focus-Background, we might know generally where the character or characters are situated, but there's little description or concrete detail to help ground us in the world of the tale. Characters may live in a house or work in an office, but we never find out what these places really look, smell, or sound like.

To compound the problem, characters may move through these blurry backgrounds in equally fuzzy ways. We don't know how they get from A to B, how long it takes, or what they encounter along the way.  Characters seem completely disconnected from, and unaffected by, their surroundings.

The Fix
Take some time and visualize your characters' world. Make "sensory cheat sheets" for locations in the story. Imagine you are standing in your character's place in a particular scene, and jot down a quick list of words that describe the surroundings: temperature, smells, sounds, colours, textures. What's above you? What's below? What's the light like? What objects surround you? What's the general condition of the place, and how does it make you feel?

Then use a few of these sensory impressions in every scene--choose the ones that have the greatest impact on your characters or their actions. Don't include your entire laundry-list of sensory details in your story for every setting, but have that list fixed firmly in your head, and sprinkle in the most appropriate details for the scene you're writing. Those details might change from scene to scene--for example, when your character checks in to a hotel room, she might briefly notice that the bedspread looks clean and tidy and the room smells of disinfectant. Later, when she's settling in for the night, she notices those odd stains on the carpet and the chill in the air that the heater can't banish.

Have characters interact with the objects you've placed in the scene. We touch things, pick them up, move them around, straighten them, clean them, and generally interact with items all the time, and--staying within the boundaries of what serves the story--so should your characters. We notice colours and details, pick up on scents, react to the temperature--and so should your characters.

And if characters are going from apartment to work, or castle to battlefield, or spaceship to colony planet, they have to get there somehow. Sometimes it's important to show the reader how they do that, and what happens along the way. Occasionally it's fine to say that "X arrived at the office the next morning, freshly shaved and barely hung over," but don't forget that sometimes we need to know if he drove, took the bus, or slept on the subway train.

Unlike the subject of a portrait, who comes to the forefront and is removed from their surroundings, your characters need to fully inhabit the world they live in. Don't leave the background out of focus. Make it as sharp and clear with detail as everything else, put your characters firmly in the middle of it, and your story will come to life for the reader.

Photo by artM

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