GETTING STARTED

This essay will give you what you need as background to approach the assignment. Assignment instructions follow.

Creating Settings in Literary Fiction

As a fiction writer, an author orients the reader as to where and when the action takes place by creating a setting. Well-constructed purposeful settings also evoke image stimulation, establish mood, and can supplement characters’ motivations and feelings in the moment. Without doubt, creating great stories depends on author skill in establishing settings that are integral to story development and understanding.

In essence, with the start of every new scene (if not carried over from previous scenes), the author establishes where, when, who, what. Even in techniques such as stream of consciousness, or back-story reflection, readers need orientation.

Since action scenes predominant most great successful stories, something is always happening. Life is a progression of thoughts, heartbeats, and physical movement. And stories progress through time and often locations. Characters pop in and out. And what is happening is a jumble of changing descriptive characteristics. In contrast, essays are static. And memoir is life lived with no opportunities for an author to imaginatively create characters that live in stories. Imaginative creation promotes story purpose, and theme and meaning. In fiction, an author presents human existence through character change and understanding in story action, and, of course, character thoughts and feelings. Effective use of setting with accurate stimulating images, a sense of continuous action and thought, and carefully chosen right details, augments storytelling and writing effectiveness.

Of course, static scenes are also necessary at times. For most stories, when the emphasis is on dialogue, internalization, reflection, stream of consciousness, or image description, a reader still needs to comprehend the physical action in the scene as well as a sense of progression of time and emotional change. And image reader stimulation of setting by the author choosing the right story details engages the reader and promotes enjoyment, provides a architecture to focus writing on story purpose and meaning that will entertain a reader and be memorable.

Attribution of dialogue to characters can provide well-paced and effective setting particulars:

TWO EXAMPLES

1.

“I won’t do it,” she said signaling the waiter for a check.
(This attribution provides details in addition to who’s speaking, both direct and subconscious information: in a restaurant, finished eating, speaker able to see (waiter), able to signal (not impaired), able to speak.)

2.

“Let us all rise to the occasion,” he said gripping the edges of the podium and sweeping his gaze deliberately over the audience.
(Here images are stimulated in attribution–podium, gripping edges, sweep of gaze, the intensity of gaze–but also there is a sense of urgency added to the words actually spoken. But be cautious. Depending on the context before and after, this attribution might be too many redundant or unnecessary words. Attributions can be overdone so always weigh effectiveness, pace, and consistency with the prose style established.)

Settings differ with a point of view change of character or narrator. So to be effective, in any scene in any story, an author needs to make a reader aware of the point of view, and also consider distance–for example, near or far (examples below)–and be aware what in the setting has changed due to passage of time. Ask: is there a detail that can indicate time passage with out calling attention to it specifically. (ExMPLE: “The ice cream melted” is often more acceptable in fiction to indicate time passage than “two minutes passed”.) The idea is to signal passage of time and momentum with the stroke of a small detail.

To grasp the skill of creating effective setting, an author can imagine scene as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Then, for the reader, the writer stimulates an image of scene with selected pieces from the puzzle. You will not be trying to recreate every detail of what you imagine, you’ll choose the right pieces to the imagined scene. Often, only a few pieces of the “puzzle” are needed. In this way the reader’s imagination is stimulated in a way that supports the story and the characters. And for the reader it is pleasing to add their own unique pieces to the scene puzzle. The reward is worth the effort. Readers will be more engaged in the story and the reader-imagined scene will not suffer from a writer-constrained attempt to paint a concrete scene by excessive detail.

Almost always, brevity results from the quality of puzzle pieces chosen. Fewer details are needed if individual pieces of the puzzle are maximally effective. The puzzle piece must be concrete (paper clip), not abstract (fastener). The word choice must be image-generating (cracked porcelain tea cup, or, the blue and yellow scattered pieces of the shattered Easter egg). Modifiers are usually more effective in setting when not judgmental (not huge, better to say six feet tall– but only if it fits). Avoid clichés. Use nouns and adjectives that evoke images in a few words–fifty story skyscraper, not tall building. Once you instinctively incorporate the right pieces of the puzzle in mind, you can then deliver them seamlessly.

Brevity is in building scene is best. Long descriptive passages are for past generations. Find clever ways to use your puzzle pieces in dialogue attribution, internal reflections, narrative, back story. Be sure to use fresh and exciting image fragments especially in narrative.

Unbreakable rule 1 (occasional exceptions)

Keep your settings alive with momentum: use abstract to concrete images and change passive (and past perfect) to active constructions whenever possible. EXAMPLES:

Abstract

Passive/past constructions

The weather was unpleasant. It was raining. The grey sky reflected from the wet street surface. The side street was rarely used by automobiles and ice would form soon on the sidewalk and the metal lampposts with gas burners that had to be lit each evening by a bent old man who had never failed in his duty for decades.

REWRITTEN

The old lamplighter painfully climbed his step stool to hold his quivering flame to the cast-iron gas streetlamp. The light rain would turn to ice. Pedestrians might fall. Cars skid. But he never failed his daily duty to protect in forty-eight years of evening service to the City of Charleston.

Unbreakable rule 2

Setting is essential for story but excessive description of setting is not (regardless of individual writing style). And when description is excessive, it is almost always static. For clarification of static, compare these EXAMPLES.

Example A is static.
A. The small black bird with the brilliant red wings and inquisitive yellow eyes perched on the white picket fence just out of reach of the tabby colored cat with a scar on his leg and his one eye half-closed and scarred from some long ago fight.

Example B is active.
B. The red winged blackbird glided in for a landing, and the battle-tested tabby cat leaped up, claws out, and caught only the edge of one of the bird’s wings to scratch a brilliant red feather loose that floated down to the garden path as the bird safely landed on the fence a few feet away.

Use of too many bland adjectives, adverbs, or extended, vague metaphorical comparisons can deaden the desired effect of a story (and be a sign of unimaginative writing), and should be avoided in favor of action verbs and nouns that provoke images.

From (http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/how-literary-stories-go-wrong/

Remember there are a number of modes used in story telling and one (or more) predominate for a writer and change with each specific story; these are: language, character, narration (POV), plot, image, theme. The predominant mode for a story may require adjustment of setting detail for best effect; an author will need to prioritize specific detail for the prominent mode style, and then carefully deliver details for setting so detail transfers to the reader without calling attention to technique. To maintain success in creating settings in your stories, ALWAYS revise inappropriate metaphors and poor use of language.

This is an example of setting with detail embedded in scene action. Images are evoked. Subjective abstractions are avoided (e.g. of subjective writing with abstractions: The place was a mess and she was cleaning up with little enthusiasm and carelessly waved things around frustrated she had to do the work. A LESS ABSTRACT EXAMPLE. A clutter of clothes on the floor and dirty dishes in the sink had to be cleaned up with her boy friend Baylor coming to visit. She hated cleaning; she kicked scattered trash into a pile with little enthusiasm, frustrated by a forced sense to impress when she really thought Baylor was not worthy of her effort.

EXAMPLES OF SENSORY AND CONCRETE DETAIL IN DIFFERENT POVs

Note how details are used in the three different scenes below. Also in scene note the use of sensory detail (hot, nude, stove, sink, blotch, etc.).

1. Dialogue predominating with enhanced setting.

“You’re pissing me off,” I said looking at my watch. We couldn’t make the movie if we’d left fifteen minutes ago.

“I’m trying,” she whined

I softened a little. She did try all the time. She was just slow and stupid.

“I wish you loved me,” she said picking up a saucepan with coffee she’d reheated for me. She moved it toward the dishwasher. I reached to help but she jerked it away, not in the mood to be pampered. Hot liquid spilled on her. She screamed with pain.

“Goddamn it,” she said. She was nude and a red blotch blossomed on her thigh.

“It wasn’t my fault,” I said not moving, refusing to help.

“I wish you were dead.”

2. Narrative first person description with setting details.

I was in the kitchen of my girlfriend Ellie’s house watching her load the dishwasher between the four-burner stove and the porcelain sink. We were already late for the movie. She’d picked up a saucepan she’d used to heat instant coffee and spilled hot water on her leg as she buried the pan into a washer rack.

“Damn it,” she screamed. She wasn’t wearing any clothes and a red splotch blossomed on her leg.

3. Narrator writing in scene from narrator POV.

Ellie heated left over coffee to boiling in a saucepan. Jake stood behind her fidgeting.

“I don’t want coffee now,” Jake said. “We’ll never make the movie.”

“I can’t never please you.” She grabbed the handle to empty the pan in the sink.

“Leave it, “ Luke said. He reached to take it from her but she turned away unwilling to be pushed around. His hand hit her arm and hot liquid spilled on her naked belly, ran down her exposed thigh; the skin turned red, ready to blister.

“I hate you,” she screamed.

“I’ll go by myself,” he said ignoring her moan as she slumped to the linoleum floor.

FAMOUS EXAMPLES

Here are two famous story openings that set the stage for the reader effectively. First, “Barn Burning “ by William Faulkner. Note Faulkner’s provision of setting is in scene with sensory detail and more than one point of view (narrator and boy).

1. Faulkner example

The store in which the justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:

Second, Moby Dick, by Melville. In Melville’s novel opening, note narrator description at a distance with an imperative 2nd person tone, the use of poetic language (image provoking words and tight effective metaphors at their best), and detail incorporated in expression of emotions and mood (with lots of energy in the language). The style may seem archaic, but don’t miss the value of the writing techniques.

2. Melville example.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?

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ASSIGNMENT

Practicing writing scenes emphasizing settings.

Study the scene.  Then write the scene with action suggested, choosing detail so as much of who-what-when-where is provided (effortlessly).  It might help if you focus on what the reader will experience when reading our work rather than trying to get it right or sounding like what you think a famous professional fiction writer would sound like.

Write  500 words for each scene.  Be aware of the predominant mode you are using to write scene: language, character, narration (POV), plot, images, theme.  If you use dialogue, you might want to freshen up on creating dialogue.  And to make it easier to get started, you might review in scene writing.

http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/dialogue/

http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/writing-in-scene/

Scene 1.

The art studio.

Write a scene where the man artist is attracted to the woman artist and is figuring out a way to ask her on a date even though he knows she is married with children, and must couch his proposal so that it relates to discussing art.  To complicate the action, the man artist has had an affair with the model, an affair that has cooled but is not entirely over.  Incorporate setting details in the scene.  Chose the most effective details that are effective.  Let the reader have room to imagine their own interpretation of the scene.  You aren’t writing the entire story, just a scene, so all the story action is not necessary, just for the time the picture suggests.  Limit to 500 words or less to be effective.

 

Scene 2.

The cockpit.

In this scene, the copilot and pilot are in preflight check.  Each will have a list to cover that all is working, flight plan submitted, tower is contacted for taxi instructions, etc.  The copilot planning suicide by taking the plane down once they reach cruising altitude.  So there is a lot of evil planning going on by the copilot  while the pilot calmly prepares for a normal flight.  Provide who-what-when-where of setting as you write this scene-segment of you’re story.  Limit to 500 words.

 


   Work submissions for Assignment 17: Creating settings

The Cockpit

“Jack,” said captain Alex Stewart of flight CA201 to Berlin. “Starting international flight checklist.”

Jack Turnhout, 25 years of loyal service, tore his eyes away from the side-window and turned his attention from the tarmac to the reality of a life that would end in precisely 6 hours and 43 minutes, if the plane departed on time. Planes always did, early on a Sunday.

“Starting international flight checklist, Alex.”

Jack, father of two, was ready for the flight without the prozac. He had said goodbye to the kids and kissed his wife whilst she was asleep, her head delicately resting on the crimson pillow. He left a note on the kitchen table. She had to know.

He checked boxes one by one – fuel gauges, flaps, parking brakes. Even one of the stewardess’ short stilettos had been given the go-ahead.

“Are you OK?” enquired Alex.

Had Alex noticed something? A gesture or a misplaced remark? Maybe Jack had been too quiet during the pre-flight briefing. He usually talked and joked about his latest round of golf, but today he said nothing.

‘I’ll fly the first half,” said Alex.

“Fine, I’ll take over when we reach the mountains.”

Jack would fly over the blue mountains, not Alex. No time to react when the plane would freely fall through the deep blue sky. Jack had it all – the plane, the timing, and 162 lives.

This wasn’t suicide. Jack would never commit suicide. This was murder-suicide, according to the experts. He Googled that long ago. Invariably linked to depression, he read. A lack of masculinity. But Jack had never felt so much like a man. A man finally in control of his own destiny. A man about to confront the irrationality of life.

Jack’s timing had to be perfect. Starting the nose-dive over the highest peaks of the blue mountains would give Alex no time to react. He will have been flying for over three hours, and Jack assumed that the captain’s reaction and assessment of what was suddenly happening would not be optimal after such a long haul.

It was 4.55 pm local time when the plane flew over the blue mountains. Jack saw the highest peaks piercing pellets of fluffy cotton. He closed his eyes and pictured a little girl running in a garden, looking for a treasure that he hid the night before. He heard wedding bells and a voice saying she loved him. But he was no longer Jack Turnhout, a loving father and husband. He was Sisyphus, carrying the boulder up the mountain once too often. He had enough of rolling down life’s sticky slopes, so he dived instead. It was 4.58 on a Sunday afternoon when Jack Turner opened his eyes.

Instructor Response

George,

The exercise is about setting. Great job. And now let’s look at elements of story, about narration, about keeping your ideas clear and arranging them in logical sequence.

The action in this story is pilots in plane preparing for flight, over the mountains, Jack will take control of the plane, force it in a dive and kill all aboard die. It’s the timeline you’ve established.

Once you established the timeline, you used backstory and internalization to develop character. This leads to exposition and often extraneous ideas interrupting the flow of your story. I’ve color-coded these in green, the basic story is left as is. The idea is to get you thinking about how to characterize and develop plot together.

The Cockpit

“Jack,” said captain Alex Stewart of flight CA201 to Berlin. “Starting international flight checklist.”

Jack Turnhout, 25 years of loyal service, tore his eyes away from the side-window and turned his attention from the tarmac to the reality of a life that would end in precisely 6 hours and 43 minutes, if the plane departed on time. Planes always did, early on a Sunday.

“Starting international flight checklist, Alex.”

Jack, father of two, was ready for the flight without the prozac. He had said goodbye to the kids and kissed his wife whilst she was asleep, her head delicately resting on the crimson pillow. He left a note on the kitchen table. She had to know.

He checked boxes one by one – fuel gauges, flaps, parking brakes. Even one of the stewardess’ short stilettos had been given the go-ahead.

“Are you OK?” enquired Alex.

Had Alex noticed something? A gesture or a misplaced remark? Maybe Jack had been too quiet during the pre-flight briefing. He usually talked and joked about his latest round of golf, but today he said nothing.

‘I’ll fly the first half,” said Alex.

“Fine, I’ll take over when we reach the mountains.”

Jack would fly over the blue mountains, not Alex. No time to react when the plane would freely fall through the deep blue sky. Jack had it all – the plane, the timing, and 162 lives. 

This wasn’t suicide. Jack would never commit suicide. This was murder-suicide, according to the experts. He Googled that long ago. Invariably linked to depression, he read. A lack of masculinity. But Jack had never felt so much like a man. A man finally in control of his own destiny. A man about to confront the irrationality of life.

Jack’s timing had to be perfect. Starting the nose-dive over the highest peaks of the blue mountains would give Alex no time to react. He will have been flying for over three hours, and Jack assumed that the captain’s reaction and assessment of what was suddenly happening would not be optimal after such a long haul.

It was 4.55 pm local time when the plane flew over the blue mountains. Jack saw the highest peaks piercing pellets of fluffy cotton. He closed his eyes and pictured a little girl running in a garden, looking for a treasure that he hid the night before. He heard wedding bells and a voice saying she loved him. But he was no longer Jack Turnhout, a loving father and husband. He was Sisyphus, carrying the boulder up the mountain once too often. He had enough of rolling down life’s sticky slopes, so he dived instead. It was 4:58 on a Sunday afternoon when Jack Turner opened his eyes.

The story that is the action (plot) and thought that is true to a timeline, is actually very short when isolated on the page, and even in story time (a few hours). The story is the writing you have in past tense. Most of the other information is in backstory, memories (actually internalized backstory), and the future.  There are also mid sentence switches in point of view that need to be considered. The story information in green is important and good and your challenge is to incorporate that into the story present so that it integrates with plot without disrupting plot. You do that by widening the timeline. Maybe start the story with his saying goodnight to the kids, then write the scene of leaving the note, then dramatize the flight check, then the journey over the mountain, and the final act of starting the dive.

You have a lot of great characterization (below in yellow) but less plot-oriented info (in pink).

The Cockpit

“Jack,” said captain Alex Stewart of flight CA201 to Berlin. “Starting international flight checklist.”

Jack Turnhout, 25 years of loyal service, tore his eyes away from the side-window and turned his attention from the tarmac to the reality of a life that would end in precisely 6 hours and 43 minutes, if the plane departed on time. Planes always did, early on a Sunday.

Starting international flight checklist, Alex.”

Jack, father of two, was ready for the flight without the prozac. He had said goodbye to the kids and kissed his wife whilst she was asleep, her head delicately resting on the crimson pillow. He left a note on the kitchen table. She had to know.

He checked boxes one by one – fuel gauges, flaps, parking brakes. Even one of the stewardess’ short stilettos had been given the go-ahead.

“Are you OK?” enquired Alex.

Had Alex noticed something? A gesture or a misplaced remark? Maybe Jack had been too quiet during the pre-flight briefing. He usually talked and joked about his latest round of golf, but today he said nothing.

‘I’ll fly the first half,” said Alex.

“Fine, I’ll take over when we reach the mountains.”

Jack would fly over the blue mountains, not Alex. No time to react when the plane would freely fall through the deep blue sky. Jack had it all – the plane, the timing, and 162 lives.

This wasn’t suicide. Jack would never commit suicide. This was murder-suicide, according to the experts. He Googled that long ago. Invariably linked to depression, he read. A lack of masculinity. But Jack had never felt so much like a man. A man finally in control of his own destiny. A man about to confront the irrationality of life.

Jack’s timing had to be perfect. Starting the nose-dive over the highest peaks of the blue mountains would give Alex no time to react. He will have been flying for over three hours, and Jack assumed that the captain’s reaction and assessment of what was suddenly happening would not be optimal after such a long haul.

It was 4.55 pm local time when the plane flew over the blue mountains. Jack saw the highest peaks piercing pellets of fluffy cotton. He closed his eyes and pictured a little girl running in a garden, looking for a treasure that he hid the night before. He heard wedding bells and a voice saying she loved him. But he was no longer Jack Turnhout, a loving father and husband. He was Sisyphus, carrying the boulder up the mountain once too often. He had enough of rolling down life’s sticky slopes, so he dived instead. It was 4.58 on a Sunday afternoon when Jack Turner opened his eyes.

For this story, you should recheck your purpose. Is this story about the characters, or about the plot?  Which is more important. Chose. And then adjust in revision. In general, structure your story to meet your purpose.

Suggested References before we go on:

1. Use The Fiction Well to find answers to your questions. https://www.thefictionwell.com/

2. Start learning to write effective dialogue. https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/dialogue/

3. Learn narration (it will take dedication to conquer). https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/narration-literary-stories/

4. https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/creating-quality-characters/

Critique

The Cockpit

“Jack,” said captain Alex Stewart of flight CA201 to Berlin. “Starting international flight checklist.”  In writing dialogue, it has to sound as if could be from a real human in the story world. This does not sound right. Pilots on a routine flight usually don’t say too much. And with check lists, this would almost never be said in this phrasing, or at all. If you’re not a pilot, you can fish videos out of pilots checking their lists. It’s important to be accurate. Here you have the narrator seem to tell the dialogue. Use the pilots.

You’ve got to make dialogue sound real for the story world. One way to do that is write in scene. More later.

Jack Turnhout, 25 years of loyal service [extraneous here, weave into story for characterization without interrupting story momentum  if important to you], tore [not the right word–shifted? turned? To use past of tear for an eye movement indicates the author has made a mistake and it will distract the reader from the story.] his eyes away from the side-window and turned his attention from the tarmac to the reality of a life that would end in precisely 6 hours and 43 minutes, [Why tell what will happen? This is your climax, keep till the end. Keep it in story present. Seize the opportunity for suspense.] if the plane departed on time. [You’ve given the exact flight time; it would not change if the plane was on time or late.] Planes always did, early on a Sunday. [This is a story about death. This sentence gives facts that have nothing to do with the story. You’ve got quite a few ideas like this, sort of author-fill, and I’ll point them out with green color coding.]

“Starting international flight checklist, Alex.”  Not credible. See dialogue reference.

Jack, father of two, was ready for the flight without the prozac. He had said goodbye to the kids and kissed his wife whilst she was asleep, her head delicately resting on the crimson pillow.  [The underlined text is in Jack’s point of view (no “was,”) the first part of the sentence is the narrator.]  He left a note on the kitchen table. She had to know[“She had to know” is a switch from narrator to Jack’s POV, too.]

He checked boxes one by one – fuel gauges, flaps, parking brakes. Even one of the stewardess’ short stilettos had been given the go-ahead. [? Humor. Do you mean the pilots checked her shoes or is this a narrator thought? If so, it won’t be humorous. And consider, in contemporary times, it’s a sexist comment that will irritate some readers.]

“Are you OK?” enquired Alex. [This needs action, or conflict, or something. It’s a cliché for dialogue and doesn’t do anything for story.]

Had Alex noticed something? A gesture or a misplaced remark? Maybe Jack had been too quiet during the pre-flight briefing. He usually talked and joked about his latest round of golf, but today he said nothing.

‘I’ll fly the first half,” said Alex.

“Fine, I’ll take over when we reach the mountains.” Not credible. See dialogue reference. To make this easily acceptable to a reader it has to seem to be real. No one would say this; it’s too obviously a known fact between the two pilots who would say something like “I’ve got it.” when the time came. And it is also an author using exposition in dialogue (when we reach the mountains) that makes it sound silted and not story-real.

Jack would fly over the blue mountains, not Alex. No time to react when the plane would freely fall through  [?fall from] the deep blue sky. Jack had it all – the plane, the timing, and 162 lives.

This wasn’t suicide. Jack would never commit suicide. This was murder-suicide, according to the experts. He Googled that long ago. Invariably linked to depression, he read. A lack of masculinity. But Jack had never felt so much like a man. A man finally in control of his own destiny. A man about to confront the irrationality of life. [These are good thoughts but they are the author’s, not the character’s, nor narrator’s even. It’s common in fiction for the author to express his or her ideas, even the purpose for, or the meaning of, the story. But for best-quality literary-fiction storytelling, the author dramatizes his or her ideas. Shows them by action and imaginative dialogue. It’s not easy, but you have the focus and the ability to learn!]

Jack’s timing had to be perfect. Starting the nose-dive over the highest peaks of the blue mountains would give Alex no time to react. He will have been flying for over three hours, and Jack assumed that the captain’s reaction and assessment of what was suddenly happening would not be optimal after such a long haul.

It was 4.55 pm local time when the plane flew over the blue mountains. [Be careful when you subordinate an idea into a phrase, a clause, or an adverb that you don’t change the impact you want for the idea. Here, flying over the mountain is more important for story than the time.] Jack saw the highest peaks piercing pellets of fluffy cotton.[use “the clouds.”] [Don’t let the prose call attention to itself with inflation of the words. Keep the reader interested in the story.]  He closed his eyes and pictured a little girl running in a garden, looking for a treasure that he hid the night before. He heard wedding bells and a voice saying she loved him. But he was no longer Jack Turnhout, a loving father and husband. He was Sisyphus, carrying [pushing? That’s the image I remember. That’s the image everyone knows. This is not insignificant. Most readers will pause at this and as an author you don’t want that. Think about word meaning and accuracy when you revise.] the boulder up the mountain once too often.  He had enough of rolling down life’s sticky slopes, so he dived instead. It was 4.58 on a Sunday afternoon when Jack Turner opened his eyes.

Thanks for the submission!

  1. Thanks for yet another really helpful critique. A lot of backstory, now that I read it with your insights. One phrase stood out from your critique – “the author dramatises his or her ideas.” – That’s where I frequently deviate, I let the prose take over and it dilutes the action. I must let the characters do the writing!

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The odour of her perfume transformed the ochre yellow she was using into the pale green I saw on the canvas. I was beside her, too close for comfort, and inhaled the deep aroma of both colours. The model, whose love I hadn’t fallen out of, the artist whose delicate touch of a silken paintbrush was ready to turn me over onto a blank canvas. Both destabilised me. The three of us in a small cluttered studio, a triangle of emotions with unequal sides. My past was in the canvas too. Silent as always, she casting an eye and a judgment. Her hands, delicately crossed on imperceptibly open thighs, reminded me of times gone by, of mistakes we made. I would have to tell the artist, eventually, too frightened that she would guess. But I wanted to be part of her life, she who held the paintbrush. 

“I like it,” I said, “maybe you could do my portrait one day.” 

“Sure,” she said. “They would go well together.”

“We could discuss the commission over dinner.”

I expected a ‘no’ from one, and a retribution from the other, but got neither.

“I’ll see in my agenda,” she said.  

She had discreetly left the door wide open. It was a meeting to discuss a work of art – my portrait and nothing else. I looked once more at the canvas and still saw pale green instead of ochre yellow. But the model had changed. The face of my unfinished love carried the mask of a sphinx.

Instructor Response

Good work. I can feel and admire your love of words.

In the main, I can’t figure out what is happening in the first part of the paragraph. I’ve made comments and suggestions. I’ll make comments on dialogue too. Nothing wrong with the dialogue but I’ll make suggestions as to opportunities to make the dialogue contribute to characterization, imagery.

The odour of her perfume transformed the ochre yellow she was using into the pale green I saw on the canvas. [This confuses me. Because of the construction and word choice and unclear imagery. Perfume, a scent, transforms yellow to green? Is this the pigment or in the protagonist’s perception? And how did it all work out on the canvas. Simplify your description and accurately describe what you see in your head and the action you see occurring.]  I was beside her, too close for comfort, [try: I was beside her, uncomfortably close] and inhaled the deep aroma of both colours. [I don’t think you can inhale a colour, a sent maybe,] The model, whose love I hadn’t fallen out of, [awkward prose: consider “I loved the model . . .]the artist whose delicate touch of a silken paintbrush was ready to turn me over onto a blank canvas [[Does this mean “She would paint my image? This sentence, as is, mixes imagery and action and unclear image–what is a silken paintbrush. Are the bristles silken? If so why are you saying it now when your predicting action.] . Both destabilised me. [Find a better word for destabilized. It doesn’t let us know what happened to “you.”] The three of us in a small cluttered studio, a triangle of emotions with unequal sides.[Nice!] My past was in the canvas too. [I don’t understand. If it’s important, dramatize or clarify what you mean.] Silent as always, she casting [casts] an eye and a judgment.[Nice!] Her hands, delicately crossed on imperceptibly open thighs [the oxymoron doesn’t work here], reminded me of times gone by,   [when you say “mistakes were made” the reader knows it’s in the past, so don’t use “of times gone by.”] of mistakes we made. I would have to tell the artist, eventually; I was too frightened that she would guess But I wanted to be part of her life. she who held the paintbrush.[Unnecessary, and diminishes the power of what you’ve said very effectively before in the sentence.] 

“I like it,” I said, “maybe you could do my portrait one day.”  [Find dialogue that has a purpose here. An e.g: “You paint with a certain joie de vivre. I don’t excite people often. You probably wouldn’t want to paint me.”

Sure,”  “Possibly.” she said. "They would go well together."

“We could discuss the commission over dinner.”  “How much would it cost then?” [Keep the interaction alive using suspense

I expected a ‘no’ from one, and a retribution from the other, but got neither.    “Much more than you might afford.”

“I’ll see in my agenda,” she said.  

She had discreetly left the door wide open. It was a meeting to discuss a work of art – my portrait and nothing else. I looked once more at the canvas and still saw pale green instead of ochre yellow. But the model had changed. The face of my unfinished love carried the mask of a sphinx. [Interesting. Clarify the green instead of yellow. I think I know, but unsure.] 

Comment. Solid ideas. Work on delivery, accuracy of word choice, and an underlying timeline and progression along that timeline in the prose. Even though short, there is a story working here that is effective.

Thanks for the submission,

All the best,

William H Coles

  1. Thank you so much for your comments, really instructive. At last the sort of critique I’m looking for. I felt that with your corrections you showed me how to reach a higher level that I truly feel I’m capable of reaching. I’m certainly going to work on delivery of my thoughts into words and make sure my line of thought really transfers onto the page by analysing every choice of word. The beginning was indeed his perception of the colours that was being changed by her presence. The blank canvas: not only did he want her to paint a portrait of him, but he wanted to start his life anew with her. His former girlfriend was not only the model, but also appeared in the canvas as a woman who reminded him of his past, whilst the model had the impassive look of a sphinx. She knows that it’s all going to end in tears. (I should have said all that, now I think about it!!!) – Thanks again for your wonderful advice! George

  2. Thanks for your reply. I’m pleased to know I’ve helped in some way.
    Best,
    WHC

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Scene 1: The Art Studio

“Cristine, may I have a word with you?” James said, interrupting her from her work. She put down her brushes and looked at him exhaustingly. She had been working on her painting all day, and he really hated to bother her. She nodded as if to say begin talking.

“I hate to bother you because we are both pretty busy today, but I really think this painting of Elisa looks marvelous. I like how you used thin brushstrokes and light watercolors. Do you mind staying late tonight to discuss your techniques?” he asked her willingly. He hoped she agreed because he had been fond of her for years, and he could never act on it because she was married and had kids.

She nodded happily and said, “I think that would be perfect. I am really confident in this style and piece. I will just call Elisa, and tell her to tell her father that I won’t be home for dinner.”

Elisa was Cristine’s daughter, and she was our model on occasion. She doesn’t come around very often anymore. She told her mother that art really wasn’t her interest anymore, but I knew the real reason.

Elisa and I were very close. She had been my model very frequently a few years ago. One night we stayed late, and things happened between Elisa and I. It was never anything serious, but it hasn’t completely stopped. Over the years things have cooled off, but we are still attracted to each other. I really hate that it happens, and I never could tell Cristine. She would hate me forever. I couldn’t live with her hating me.

As I waited for Cristine to get off of the phone with her daughter I went and stood on the balcony. The sky looked like it was on fire, bursting with color from the sunset. Our art studio was in the middle of Paris, and I think it is quite romantic. It was high up, secluded, and cozy. It was perfect. Too bad I can’t share it with Cristine.

 

Scene 2: The Cockpit

I had always loved flying. It gave me a sense of power. I can control a big, metal, tin can looking device flying through the air. A sense of power that I don’t have at home.

I sound like such a loser. I am almost thirty, and I still live at home with my parents. No girlfriend, I’m only a copilot and no money. I am such a loser. That’s why I plan to end it all today.

As I go through my preflight checklist, I begin to feel nervous. I am not only taking my life, but I am taking the lives of all of these innocent people on their way to vacation in Italy. Maybe they will thank me. Maybe they are going through things too. Maybe this isn’t all that bad.

I check to make sure all of the engines are running properly and to see if we are connected to the towers communications properly.

Rick is beside me. I look over at him and he gives a quick smile. We have been friends for years. We trained together to become pilot and copilot. He was such a great man. I look over at him calmly going through his checklist. He doesn’t know that when we reach our greatest altitude I am bringing all of us down. We both finish our checklists and plan for take off.

We fly for about an hour, and I realize we are getting close to our highest altitude. I say a quick prayer. I pray that God won’t condemn my soul for what I think needs to be done. I am only trying to do everyone a favor.

When I get done praying, I realize that it’s time for me to do it. Goodbye world.

Instructor Response

Hi Kayla. Great work. My comments and suggestions are in red. References at the end.

Scene 1: The Art Studio

First, some suggestions about dialogue that I’ll illustrate by rewriting a few dialogue segments. Dialogue should never sound like a tape recording of a conversation, yet, paradoxically, dialogue should always sound as if was spoken in reality. Part of this is adhering to brevity and not putting too many ideas in a segment.  The examples in red below are only suggestions to give you an idea of what I mean.

“Cristine, may I have a word with you?” James said, interrupting her from her work. She put down her brushes and looked at him exhaustingly exhausted. She had been working ‘d worked on her painting all day, and he really hated to bother her. She nodded as if to say begin talking giving permission for him to talk.

“I hate to bother you because we are both pretty busy today, but I really think this painting of Elisa looks marvelous. I like how you used thin brushstrokes and light watercolors. Do you mind staying late tonight to discuss your techniques?” he asked her willingly. He hoped she agreed because he had been fond of her for years, and he could never act on it because she was married and had kids.

She nodded happily and said, “I think that would be perfect. I am really confident in this style and piece. I will just call Elisa, and tell her to tell her father that I won’t be home for dinner.”  

“Cristine, may I have a word with you?” / “You too busy to talk?”

 

“I hate to bother you because we are both pretty busy today, but I really think this painting of Elisa looks marvelous. I like how you used thin brushstrokes and light watercolors. Do you mind staying late tonight to discuss your techniques?” he asked. /

 

“That looks like Elisa. You’ve captured her perfectly.” He paused, hesitant to speak. “Could we get together tonight?” 

 

“I think that would be perfect. I am really confident in this style and piece. I will just call Elisa, and tell her to tell her father that I won’t be home for dinner.”  

 

“I don’t need to work on this. I’d love to.” She began to clean her brushes. “I’ll get Elisa to tell her father I won’t be home.”

 

NOTE: I’m trying to make the dialogue sound the way I think the characters would speak in real life, or in a film.

Elisa was Cristine’s daughter, and she was our model on occasion. She doesn’t come around very often anymore. She told her mother that art really wasn’t her interest anymore, but I knew the real reason.

Elisa and I were very close. She had been my model very frequently a few years ago. One night we stayed late, and things happened between Elisa and I. It was never anything serious, but it hasn’t completely stopped. Over the years things have cooled off, but we are still attracted to each other. I really hate that it happens, and I never could tell Cristine. She would hate me forever. I couldn’t live with her hating me.

As I waited for Cristine to get off of the phone with her daughter I went and stood on the balcony. The sky looked like it was on fire, bursting with color from the sunset. Our art studio was in the middle of Paris, and I think it is quite romantic. It was high up, secluded, and cozy. It was perfect. Too bad I can’t share it with Cristine.

Scene 2: The Cockpit

Now I would like you to think about style. Your style, at times, seems loquacious, which slows reader pace and delays comprehension.  I’ll reorganize a few sentences for succinctness. See if you like the changes. (If not, keep, no need to worry about style. It’s all subjective.)      

1. The sky looked like it was on fire, bursting with color from the sunset. The sunset spewed red and orange. (Note that most sunsets actually are on fire and you might want to go to description rather than metaphor.)

2. I had always loved flying. It gave me a sense of power. I can control a big, metal, tin can looking device flying through the air. A sense of power that I don’t have at home.

Look how this might be condensed and strengthened while saving the ideas. I loved the power of controlling a huge metallic can in the air, so different than the passivity I had at home. 35 vs. 20 words.

3. I sound like such a loser. I am almost thirty, and I still live at home with my parents. No girlfriend, I’m only a copilot and no money. I am such a loser. That’s why I plan to end it all today.

I’m a loser at almost thirty, no girlfriend, no money. At least I’m a copilot, capable of ending it all.  42 vs 20 words.

4. Rick is beside me. I look over at him and he gives a quick smile. We have been friends for years. Maybe:

I look to the left at my friend of twenty years, Rick, who gives me a quick smile.  22 vs 18

As I go through my preflight checklist, I begin to feel nervous. I am not only taking my life, but I am taking the lives of all of these innocent people on their way to vacation in Italy. Maybe they will thank me. Maybe they are going through things too. Maybe this isn’t all that bad.

I check to make sure all of the engines are running properly and to see if we are connected to the towers communications properly.

Rick is beside me. I look over at him and he gives a quick smile. We have been friends for years. We trained together to become pilot and copilot. He was such a great man. I look over at him calmly going through his checklist. He doesn’t know that when we reach our greatest altitude I am bringing all of us down. We both finish our checklists and plan for take off.

We fly for about an hour, and I realize we are getting close to at our highest altitude. I say a quick prayer. I pray that God won’t condemn my soul for what I’m about ready to go for what I’m about ready to do. I am only trying to do everyone a favor.

When I finish my prayers. praying, I realize that It’s time! for me to do it. Goodbye world.

SUMMARY. You’ve done a great job with the exercises. Nice work. I’d think about too many words and how to make dialogue seem realistic. I’ve included references (free and online).

 

Thanks for the submission and all the best,

Bill Coles

RESOURCES

https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/dialogue/

https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/improving-dialogue/

https://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/characterization/

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The Art Studio

Danielle interrupted him, “Do you have a moment Samuel?” She asked.

He immediately put down his brush. They worked in a converted church in the artistic district. Danielle had her studio down the hall from his. He admired her work, her vivacity, and her ability to get to the core of a subject. Although she was married and had two children, he thought of her, usually when he had a difficult problem with a painting, or when he lay alone at night in bed.

They walked across the hall to her studio, all bare walls, curtained windows designed to keep distraction to a minimum. Coverings hid unknown work, latent or complete. The lighting took aim at her current work. He flinched when he saw the portrait was of his former model, Elena. They had had a relationship, and he still saw her occasionally.

The pungent odor of paint and solvent hung in the air. He stood with his arms folded, studying the picture from a side angle while Danielle examined it from head on but farther back than he was, out of his line of vision. A drop cloth, spattered with paint lay beneath the easel from which the painting hung.

There were two portraits of Elena, but the central one garnered the attention of each artist— a simple pose of her seated on a stool with her hands in her lap. Samuel new well the upward tilt of her chin, her long brown hair draped behind her back. He wondered if Danielle knew of his relationship with Elena.

In the painting, Elena wore a necklace he had given her. He remembered the feel of her neck when he latched it for her, in the early days of their relationship when everything was fresh.

Danielle caught the essence of Elena perfectly in pallid blue and gray. Still, Elena maintained her typical, determined expression, with her shoulders held back and her head held high. Within that expression lay the key to Elena, but he never understood the puzzle of her and he didn’t care anymore.

His interest turned to the artist. He’d never dared pursue a married woman before. “This is a marvelous painting,” he said.

Her eyes sparkled. “Thank you.”

He hoped her appreciation was for more than his artistic expertise. He touched her lightly on the arm, just for a moment. She waited, quietly, expecting, he knew, a more clinical assessment of her work.

He had plenty to say about the painting, all of it complimentary, but he put her off. “I have to get back to my painting,” he said, their eyes still locked. “I’d like to talk to you in depth about this portrait. Are you available for dinner this evening?”

“I am available,” she said.

 

The Cockpit

Basil looked about the cockpit as if with new eyes, remembering the first time he stepped into a 737: all knobs, gadgets, and blue-lit screens surrounded him. He felt the power of the space, snug and claustrophobic. He longed for that power to be his, alone.

“You all right, Basil?” Jim Archer, the pilot of this flight asked. “I can’t have my first officer getting sick on me.”

Basil balked. “I’m fine,” he said. He felt a headache coming on. He and Archer went through training together. He still remembers their graduation date, ten years ago to the day, July 9th, 2005.He hated that Archer was had made captain but he still hadn’t. The requirements weren’t fair; they were stacked against him.

“You sure? You’re all red in the face.”

Basil didn’t answer, but went back to his prestart checklist. His hands were shaking. “Hydraulic Pump Switches—on, Landing Gear Lever—down, Flaps—down.” He checked them off on his electronic pad.

He glanced at Archer, calmly working on his own checklist. The guy had no idea this would be his last flight. Basil heard the rumbling of passengers behind him boarding the plane, and the voice of Julia, one of the flight attendants welcoming them aboard, in her pleasant voice. Basil knew she was faking it. She hated the public as much as he did. He’d given up on his romantic notions toward her. Bedding Julia would be another fail in a long list of failures, but, he thought, he was doing her a favor; she wouldn’t have to put up with snotty passengers ever again. If only he could tell her his brilliant plan; then, she might show her appreciation.

He turned back to his checklist, his peripheral attention remaining on Jim. Jim whistled beneath his breathe, a soft, airy melody of his own creation. A concerto of ignorance, Basis thought. He’d have to incapacitate Jim before he could take the plane down. He stepped out of the cockpit and returned with two large cups of coffee, and handed one to Jim.

Jim extended his hand for the cup. “Thanks, just what I need.”

Basil flaunted a cocky smile. By the time they reached cruising altitude, Jim would have to take a piss. Then, he’d lock him out of the cockpit. He’d take a piss himself, right on the pilot’s seat. Then, he’d take the plane down. Nobody would be able to stop him.

Instructor Response

Hey Russ—

Well done. This assignment demonstrates well how setting is created within story. And good scenes, too. Lots of movement, with conflicts up front and then resolutions. Good work!

 

The Art Studio

Danielle interrupted him, “Do you have a moment Samuel?” She asked.

He immediately put down his brush. They worked in a converted church in the artistic district. Danielle had her studio down the hall from his. He admired her work, her vivacity, and her ability to get to the core of a subject. Although she was married and had two children, he thought of her, usually when he had a difficult problem with a painting, or when he lay alone at night in bed.

They walked across the hall to her studio, all bare walls, curtained windows designed to keep distraction to a minimum. Coverings hid unknown work, latent or complete.  The lighting took aim at her current work. He flinched when he saw the portrait was of his former model, Elena. They had had a relationship, and he still saw her occasionally.

The pungent odor of paint and solvent hung in the air. He stood with his arms folded, studying the picture from a side angle while Danielle examined it from head on but farther back than he was, out of his line of vision. A drop cloth, spattered with paint lay beneath the easel from which the painting hung.

There were two portraits of Elena, but the central one garnered the attention of each artist— a simple pose of her seated on a stool with her hands in her lap. Samuel new well the upward tilt of her chin, her long brown hair draped behind her back.  He wondered if Danielle knew of his relationship with Elena.

In the painting, Elena wore a necklace he had given her. He remembered the feel of her neck when he latched it for her, in the early days of their relationship when everything was fresh.

Danielle caught the essence of Elena perfectly in pallid blue and gray. Still, Elena maintained her typical, determined expression, with her shoulders held back and her head held high. Within that expression lay the key to Elena, but he never understood the puzzle of her and he didn’t care anymore.

His interest turned to the artist. He’d never dared pursue a married woman before. “This is a marvelous painting,” he said.

Her eyes sparkled. “Thank you.”

He hoped her appreciation was for more than his artistic expertise. He touched her lightly on the arm, just for a moment. She waited, quietly, expecting, he knew, a more clinical assessment of her work.

             He had plenty to say about the painting, all of it complimentary, but he put her off.  “I have to get back to my painting,” he said, their eyes still locked. “I’d like to talk to you in depth about this portrait. Are you available for dinner this evening?”

“I am available,” she said.

Great. You created the setting without detracting from characterization or story line.

The Cockpit

Basil looked about the cockpit as if with new eyes, remembering the first time he stepped into a 737: all knobs, gadgets, and blue-lit screens surrounded him. He felt the power of the space, snug and claustrophobic. He longed for that power to be his, alone.

“You all right, Basil?” Jim Archer, the pilot of this flight asked. “I can’t have my first officer getting sick on me.”

Basil balked. “I’m fine,” he said. He felt a headache coming on. He and Archer went through training together. He still remembers their graduation date, ten years ago to the day, July 9th, 2005.He hated that Archer was had made captain but he still hadn’t. The requirements weren’t fair; they were stacked against him.

“You sure? You’re all red in the face.”

Basil didn’t answer, but went back to his prestart checklist. His hands were shaking. “Hydraulic Pump Switches—on, Landing Gear Lever—down, Flaps—down.” He checked them off on his electronic pad.

He glanced at Archer, calmly working on his own checklist. The guy had no idea this would be his last flight. Basil heard the rumbling of passengers behind him boarding the plane, and the voice of Julia, one of the flight attendants welcoming them aboard, in her pleasant voice. Basil knew she was faking it. She hated the public as much as he did. He’d given up on his romantic notions toward her. Bedding Julia would be another fail in a long list of failures, but, he thought, he was doing her a favor; she wouldn’t have to put up with snotty passengers ever again. If only he could tell her his brilliant plan; then, she might show her appreciation.

He turned back to his checklist, his peripheral attention remaining on Jim. Jim whistled beneath his breathe, a soft, airy melody of his own creation. A concerto of ignorance, Basis thought. He’d have to incapacitate Jim before he could take the plane down. He stepped out of the cockpit and returned with two large cups of coffee, and handed one to Jim.

Jim extended his hand for the cup. “Thanks, just what I need.”

Basil flaunted a cocky smile. By the time they reached cruising altitude, Jim would have to take a piss. Then, he’d lock him out of the cockpit. He’d take a piss himself, right on the pilot’s seat. Then, he’d take the plane down. Nobody would be able to stop him.

Great again. Setting created without a missed step in the story. 

 

Thanks for the submission!

Bill

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