Two landscapes, both rocky, empty places by the water. Yet what different stories you would—or, I think, should—write set in each location!
Many authors start a story knowing only a character or characters. Some start with an image, situation, or plot idea. Some wake up from a dream with a story partially or even fully formed.
I almost always start with a setting. That setting may be a location, a time period, a society, or all three simultaneously. Only once I know the setting do I come up with characters and a plot appropriate for it.
For a romance writer, for whom characters and their personal development are core to their books, starting with characters is probably the best approach. For a science fiction or horror writer, by contrast, starting with an idea or image may work particularly well.
Many authors seem to have little choice in how they begin a story. One method or another comes naturally and other methods seem alien. I suspect successful writers unconsciously choose their genres in part by how story ideas come to them.
What strengths is a story likely to have if the author starts with a setting?
- It is unlikely to suffer “white-room syndrome” (see my earlier post “Building a World”). Instead, the world is likely to be fully fleshed out and believable.
- Its characters may be more authentic because the author was particularly conscious of the setting’s social and physical limits on thoughts and actions.
- The setting is more likely to function as a character, influencing goals, creating conflicts, and enriching the story.
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction)
- The “Master at Arms” romance series by Jennifer Blake (New Orleans in the 1840s)
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (New Orleans in the 1960s)
- The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay (a fantasy world modeled after medieval Spain)
- The “Sebastian St. Cyr” mystery series by C.S. Harris (Regency England)
- The “Sano Ichō” mystery series by Laura Joh Rowland (17th century Japan)
Despite being a setting-first writer, I acknowledge that starting with a setting has its weaknesses:
- Characters may be overly shaped by the setting and not have distinct-enough individual personalities.
- The story may be overburdened with description of rooms, landscapes, clothes, customs, and other setting details the author fell in love with.
- Some readers may have to work harder to put themselves into a story when an alien setting is well set up; a vague setting allows readers to fill in missing information with comfortable, familiar details from their own experience.
Win a book! My second annual birthday contest is now going on at my personal blog, For Love of Words (http://ShaunaRoberts.blogspot.com). Two commenters will be randomly chosen to win a book of their choice by anyone I’ve interviewed at my blog or a copy of my October release, Like Mayflies in a Stream. To enter, just comment on this post.
I’ll be blogging on Novel Spaces again on 8 October, when I’ll talk about writing Like Mayflies in a Stream. I look forward to seeing you then!