We went straight into our first writing session when Jen entered the class. This lesson was all about Plot and Setting, and according to Jen, someone once said that plot and setting is essentially “A person in a place with a problem.” Start writing. Ready. Set. Go! You have 10 minutes.
Writing Session 1 – “A person in a place with a problem.”
The fact that we had to start writing immediately threw me off a little bit even though Jen had warned us last week that this would be the format of her lessons to get us warmed up. This is what I produced in the first 10 minutes. Don’t judge me.
‘Sofia found herself running out of land to run on. She was moving through the forest at breakneck speed from the Snatchers. She could see light ahead of her between the tree branches as she ran as fast as she could, her feet exhausted but determined, her eyes wide with fear but alert, her mind racing but focused. She came to the edge of the forest and ran into the open, certain she could be seen by the Snatchers and would be surrounded by them in a matter of seconds. Her luck had certainly run out. She halted at the edge of the precipice, her mouth wide in shock. One more step, and she would have fallen into oblivion. The cliff edge she was standing on met with other cliff edges below, hanging dangerously from the mountains that surrounded her.
Breathing heavily, she turned around to face her soon-to-be captors. It was either jump and see-what-happens or get captured by the Snatchers and who-knew-what. She decided that she would take her chances. She could see the massive still lake that sat at the bottom where all the mountains met. Without waiting to take another breath, she turned around and pushed herself over the cliff edge, screaming all the way down.’
Plot is basically the story – it’s what happens and the order in which it happens. The critical thing that you have to remember about plot is that something has to change to move the story from point A to point B. This needs to happen to make the story interesting and give it momentum. This change in circumstances to propel the story forward can be one or more of several:
- A physical event (a physical event moves story from point A to point B)
- Psycho killer killing people
- Psycho arrested
- A decision (this tends to be used for more character-based or driven plots)
- Father wants son to be a lawyer
- Son decides to be a ballerina
- Change in a relationship (between two people or more/romance)
- Girl and boy can’t stand each other
- Girl and boy decide to get married
- Change in a person (usually prominent in stories classified as ‘great literature’ which tend to feature the usual middle aged white guy figuring himself and the world around him out)
- Character is an ass
- Character changes and becomes a better person by going on a journey of self-discovery etc.
- Change in the reader’s understanding of a situation
- A character appears to be a murderer
- Someone else is actually the murderer
- No change at all
- Character goes on a journey
- Character has not learnt much at all / has not changed. At the end of the story the character has had no growth despite the journey they have taken (e.g. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov)
Another critical aspect to creating plot and driving momentum is having a central conflict.
- Conflict between characters e.g. Prince Charming’s ex-girlfriend comes along and wants to break up relationship with Cinderella
- Internal conflict e.g. Cinderella develops a drinking problem
- Conflict between character and a force e.g. floods/natural disasters, dragons, dictator, oppressive regime etc.
Know your characters!
For a reader to be really involved in what happens to a character, they need to FEEL SOMETHING for that character. Only then will they be able to invest in your character/s and care about what happens to them. As a writer you need to REALLY KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS in order to be able to do this effectively. You need to take your character/s and know everything they would hate to happen to them. What would be really bad for them? Brainstorm everything – both big and small – and then you need to pick 1-4 of these things and throw them at your character/s in the plot. You will then be able to make your reader sweat a little by putting your character/s through the ringer. Einstein once said: “Nothing happens until something moves.” It’s important that characters should not get complacent too soon. You should jump into action on the first page.
The following is the most common storytelling plot structure. Bear in mind that this is only one theory and there are more (none of which we covered in the lesson btw…), but this is probably the best one to use for writers when they are starting out, as it provides a rather cohesive roadmap:
- Start: reader gets to know the character and become invested in their situation
- Climax: build up conflict to a crisis point where a decision has to take place/a change has to be made. This is the climax where there is essentially a fork in the road and the character/s need to choose whether to go left or right, so to speak.
- Resolution: the ending or close of the story and this depends on how the climax played out.
Writing Session 2 – Conflict between a romantic couple
Skandar: I want to marry you.
Rory: Right now?!
Skandar: Yes. Soon.
Rory: I’m not so sure that’s a good idea…
Skandar: Why not?
Rory: Well… we’re still really young and I just think we want so many different things in our careers… I mean who knows where we will be in five years time?
Rory leaned over on the table and took Skandar’s hand.
Skandar: I thought this was what you wanted…
Rory: It is what I want! Just not right now… maybe we can get engaged or something…?
Skandar looks away. His eyes are watery and he looks hurt, stung even. He moves his hand away from Rory.
Skandar: I want to marry you. I want us to move into together and start building our lives together. This boyfriend/girlfriend thing is uncertain and frankly a waste of time. We know that we want to be together so what else is there to think about? I thought we were on the same page. I guess not.
Rory: Skandar you have got this all wrong. I want to marry you, but just not right now. I need time to think about this. We’re just too young and to be completely honest, I don’t think I’m ready.
Skandar: What? So you’re not ready to be with me full-time – is that it?
Rory: Yes. I am not ready to make that kind of commitment yet! When I think about marriage all I think of is mortgages, babies and cleaning! Thanks, but no thanks.
Setting is described as the time and place in which the story unfolds. However, this can be seen as a very reductionist view of setting as it does not give weight to the tremendous power it can have over the mood and atmosphere of a story.
Jen shared a beautiful passage from The Great Gatsby with us to demonstrate the power of setting. Fitzgerald’s description is so wonderful and enigmatic I was transported to the world of the 1920’s and his imagination better than any TV screen. Also, I CANNOT BELIEVE I HAVE BEEN ALIVE FOR 24 YEARS AND HAVE STILL NOT READ THE BOOK CONSIDERING I HAVE SEVERAL COPIES OF IT ON MY BOOKSHELF. I have watched the most recent film adaptation of it where Leonardo Dicaprio stars as the enigmatic Gatsby. Although the running joke with this movie is that I had no recollection of watching it with my friend Tom (I don’t think the movie was great tbh – tad try too hard for my liking), to the extent that when we were on holiday in Amsterdam I actually pointed to an advert of the movie at a bus stop and said to him “Hey Tom, have you seen The Great Gatsby? It’s not great, I wouldn’t recommend it.” to which he replied “OMFG I hate you. I watched it with you in the cinema!” Woops. Like I said, movie wasn’t that great. Anyhoo, the first thing I did when I got home after this lesson was grab the book from my shelf and put it in my handbag for the next day.
We discussed the following passage from The Great Gatsby:
“There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
His descriptive and syntactical prowess is simply stunning. Jen addressed the class after she had finished reading the passage. She asked what the first things that came to our minds were. One guy ventured the word ‘opulence’ – well naturally, she responded. She then asked what was really at the heart of the setting/plot. Another guy at the back of the class rambled on about wealth and showiness and a lot of other things I couldn’t hear (I was yet again sitting at the front of the class). I raised my hand and said: “I’m not sure if it is the heart of the story, but for me all I could see in that passage was inequality.” I went on to explain the juxtaposition between the lavish parties and the workers/gardeners cleaning up after everyone the day after as crucial to this insight. Yes! I had hit the nail on the head according to Jen (I miss studying English Literature!). Jen was trying to demonstrate to us how setting could be used to say so much more than what it was actually saying. How characters in a scene interact with their setting tells us a lot, and tells us more poignantly than one would by simply stating it.
The key points to remember here are:
- You need to know who your character is in relation to the environment around them.
- No two people or character/s see the environment in the same way and so you need to hone in on their views/vision and avoid relying on archetypes or generic ideas.
- Character’s world views need to be consistent with how they live e.g. their background – class, gender, status, biases etc. – is going to affect how they see the world and exist in it.
- Connect character to setting and to a larger social understanding.
- When it comes to setting, draw on all senses e.g. smell is usually the strongest sense of recollection -> weaving this into your story can really help you connect with the reader.
- Focus on the less obvious. Look at what is unique or pertinent to the story.
Writing Session 3 – Character and setting
For our final writing session of the lesson, Jen wrote a list of generic objects you might find in a room on the board and asked us to pick one. I chose “sharpened pencils”. She then asked us to start writing about how the setting and a character within it interact and said we can also bring another object of our choice into the story. The advise was to look at the scene like you might do through a camera: start off with a broad view and then zoom into certain objects which illuminate the character and how they interact with their setting. Here is what I produced, enjoy:
‘She sat down on the couch and looked at the sharpened pencils on the coffee table. They looked so innocent just lying there; inconspicuous. Perfect, she thought. He will never see it coming. He was due to arrive in five minutes.
She picked up the pencils and put the tip of her forefinger to the tips of the pencils, one by one. They were sharp. Sharp enough to pierce someone’s eyes without making too much of a mess. She had a knife tucked away between the sofa cushions, but she was hoping she wouldn’t need to use it. In fact, she was certain she wouldn’t need to. The sharpened pencils would be more than effective, but there’s nothing wrong with having a Plan B right? You can never be too sure what you might need when the time comes.
A quiet tap on the door signalled his arrival. She put the sharpened pencils back on the coffee table neatly, adjusted the sofa cushions and went and opened the door with a smile on her face.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m so glad you could make it.” Holding his nervous hand, she led him into the living room.’
Prep for next week/s: start writing the first chapter of my novel as I will be reading this out loud to the class in Lesson 4 and getting feedback!