Establishing a Solid Environment for Your Story
This post is a special excerpt from FINE-TUNING FICTION by the award-winning horror author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.
You’ve covered the basics: you have characters and a story-line. Now you need an environment to put them in, which is what Presence is all about. Presence makes the situation immediate and real, and provides the back-drop against which the story will be played out. The environment of a story is as much a character as the people in it. You do not exist in a vacuum, and neither can your characters. Presence is what pulls the reader in with your characters and convinces them that their experience is complete. […]
Presence supplies the answers to the basic questions of Who (are the characters involved), What (are they doing), Where (is the setting for the action), When (everything from time of day to century of the story’s events), Why (are they there), and How (did they get there both physically and psychologically). Also there is the question of familiarity: are the characters familiar with the setting, or is it as new to them as it is to the reader? Is it new to some and familiar to others? How different is the setting, if it is unfamiliar? Are the characters prepared to deal with the setting? These questions need not be answered in a block, but in the first third of any unit action, or scene, there should be some narrative elements to provide those necessary elements.
The time and place questions may be addressed in dialogue, such as:
“Goodness, Nicholas, what are you doing here at this time of night?”
“Sorry; the storm blew a tree down and it’s blocking the road.”
That is the basic information, and it tells us a great deal. For one thing, the two characters know each other: Nicholas is identified by name. It lets us know it is late at night and the weather is—or has been—bad. It establishes an unsettled mood, but not much else. We do not, for example, know the relationship between the two characters or their feelings about Nicholas’ arrival—and at this time of night—whatever time that might be. We do not know the implications of the arrival for either character.
The addition of a Presence will create the setting and situation that can draw the reader in, as well as establishing a framework for their interaction. How you present the dialogue can be as essential as the dialogue itself, for that is what conveys the Presence to the reader. Enlarging on the information to include the environment and character demeanor can fill in the gaps as well as change the tone of the meeting without altering a single word of dialogue, and relatively little exposition that is not incorporated in the characters’ responses, so that the place the action is occurring is part of the whole. Bear in mind that the Presence reinforces character and story-line, providing what some call authenticity to the story, meaning that the sense that what is happening in the story is real. One of the ways Presence and character interact is through reaction: reaction is always a good source of information in regard to characters. Note particularly those variations which imply that Nicholas belongs in this place and those in which it appears that he does not.
1) “Goodness, Nicholas, what are you doing here at this time of night? Jeanne demanded in vexation as she held the door against the gusting wind. “It’s past three.”
The porch-light cast long, angular shadows on the man’s face. “Sorry; the storm blew a tree down and it’s blocking the road.”
2) The jarring summons of the knocker brought Jeanne running to the door, her bathrobe thrown over her pajamas and untied, her bare feet growing cold on the tile floor. “Goodness, Nicholas, what are you doing here at this time of night?” She held the door to keep it from banging closed in the wind. “It’s past three.”
“Sorry,” he said as he fumbled in his pocket for his keys, “the storm blew a tree down and it’s blocking the road.”
3) “Goodness, Nicholas,” Jeff said, a sardonic note in his voice as he finally answered the adamant knocking on the door, “what are you doing here at this time of night? It’s past three.”
Nicholas grinned sheepishly. “Sorry; the storm blew a tree down and it’s blocking the road.”
4) “Goodness,” said Jeff, peering out into the blustering dark, “Nicholas, what are you doing here at this time of night?” He braced the door with his shoulder. “It’s past three.”
Nicholas shoved his way into the dim light of the entry-hall. “Sorry; the storm blew a tree down and it’s blocking the road.”
5) “Goodness, Nicholas, what are you doing here,” said Jeanne as she looked past his horse toward the east where the sky was a mass of clouds blocking out the moon, “at this time of night. It’s past three.”
“Sorry,” he said, shrugging out of his cloak as he stepped into his grandmother’s house. “The storm blew a tree down and it’s blocking the road.”
Each of these examples creates a different atmosphere for the dialogue to occur in, and puts a different slant on the characters of Nicholas, Jeanne and Jeff. In the first example, we discover that Jeanne isn’t very happy to see Nicholas, no matter what excuse he may have for being there—and in that context, the downed tree does seem a bit like an excuse; the way the light falls on his face implies that. In the second example there is more importance on the fallen tree, for it may account for the lateness of Nicholas’ arrival; clearly Jeanne has been worried about his absence, or someone’s absence—she may not have expected Nicholas at all. In the third example Jeff is more unperturbed than Jeanne; by shifting the narration to a slightly different part of the dialogue a subtle change in tone occurs—there is the feeling that Nicholas has done this kind of thing before and Jeff regards his lateness as annoying but minor shenanigans. In the fourth example, the character of the night once again becomes important and Nicholas somewhat less welcome in the two previous examples, or perhaps Nicholas is more desperate than in earlier examples. The fifth example moves to what is probably an earlier or fantasy time, and it is the establishment of that other time that becomes the focal point of the dialogue; the specific information in the dialogue, while important, is secondary to the horse and Nicholas’ cloak and grandmother’s house.
Each of these examples shows the Presence in a slightly different way, all of which show a different aspect of this late-night arrival. Yet all establish a context and a spirit for the reader to use to enter into the environment of the story.
Excerpted from Fine-Tuning Fiction © 2013 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Excerpted with permission from the author. All Rights Reserved.