Earlier this month, when the NaNo-ers were on fire with enthusiasm to generate words, I asked you all to make a setting list and set it aside for later.
It's later now. Get out your list. (What do you mean, you didn't actually make one? It's a three-minute exercise. You can make one now. We'll wait. *whistles Jeopardy*)
Why a Setting List Helps
Remember our core definition of scene? A scene is--
-- Purposeful characters
-- In meaningful motion
-- Against a background
You need all three elements: characters, doing stuff, at a location. When we're in first draft frenzy, we tend to focus a lot on the characters and plot. This is entirely natural. Not a thing wrong with it. These are big picture elements that absolutely must be in place.
But if you start to feel sluggish or stuck, and you're not really sure what to do, a setting list can help break things loose by letting you approach scene construction from the most-overlooked angle. You brainstorm a list of places your characters might run into one another. You don't worry about whether they would ever actually go to this place, or what happens when they're there. You just set the timer for three or four minutes and brainstorm places as fast as you can.
My Exercise List
I made a quick example list, not with any particular book in mind, just pulling names from the ether and making the setting lists. Here is what I came up with in three short minutes.
Bill and Tony -- car wash, Bill's house, Tony's backyard next to the grill, the tavern on the corner, the parking lot where the streetlights are making that puddle of light, the cemetary, the graveside, the tombstone, a fresh grave gaping in the ground, inside a white car, the airport, the bathroom at the airport, the sinks that are always wet with the mirrors over them, why does this bring me back to an image of an open grave,
Bill and Mrs. Bill -- the bedroom, the kitchen, in the garage when the car breaks down, a high school dance with fancy dresses and crepe paper decorations, inside a red car, the place all the kids go parking, Mars, divorce court, inside a white pumpkin carriage with glass windows drawn by white horses, the forest, all these mice everywhere, lots of fairy tale connotations but it feels grim even if it comes out pretty
Carrie and Mary -- fast food joint next to the car wash, parking lot in daylight, parking lot at dark, suspicion, but they're a unit, wear the same uniforms, inside a car for carpool, an old car,
Carrie and Mrs. Bill -- colliding carts in the supermarket, Tony's backyard, parking lots again, lots of arguing when they meet, one of the wheels does that sideways-flippy thing so she can't get away,
Using the List
There are a number of ways to use the list. Some of these are more relevant to revision, and some are an aide to drafting. Perhaps the best use during the revision stage is to help you re-imagine existing scenes. If a scene feels limp or off-key, scan your setting list for other options.
But now, we're working from the assumption that you're in week three of NaNo, you're OMG sick of it all, and your book has taken so many unexpected twists that you're no longer sure what you've written. Now is the time the setting list can revive your flagging creativity.
Scenes That Want Description. Now, Please.
The first thing I want you to do is scan your list for places your brain strayed from a strict list of locations and into details related to those settings. For example, on my sample list, we have,
the forest, all these mice everywhere, lots of fairy tale connotations but it feels grim even if it comes out pretty
Notice how my brain flipped from a simple locale (the forest) to a description of what's in the forest and the possible motif it signaled? This is because some settings on your list will be so potent that the "kids in the basement" (as the creative mind is sometimes called) will immediately start sending up extra messages. It's almost as if on some inner level, your brain is shouting, "This one! This one right here! Holy shit, can you see all these mice!"
Go through your list and underline any place your mind skidded away from list-making and into elaborations. These are the hot spots on your list. Something triggered all that extra creative flow. It might be the setting detail immediately preceding it, or it might be the one before that. Only you will know. But whichever it is, pay attention to it. Something about that location is important to your story.
Recurrent Images = Possible Motifs
Next, look for setting details that are similar, and examine the possible reasons for these recurring details. On my list, we have,
car wash, the parking lot where the streetlights are making that puddle of light, inside a white car, in the garage when the car breaks down, inside a red car, the place all the kids go parking, inside a white pumpkin carriage with glass windows drawn by white horses, fast food joint next to the car wash, parking lot in daylight, parking lot at dark, inside a car for carpool, an old car, parking lots again,
That's an awful lot of noise about cars and parking lots, isn't it? And all of this is generated by a woman who can scarcely tell a sedan from a wagon. There's something significant here about cars. Parking lots. Airports. Even the wheels on shopping carts show up. So maybe it's something to do with motion, with people traveling. Arrivals or departures?
Notice, too, the dark and light images. Day and night, lights shining, the color white -- and dropped into the middle of this grayscale palette, a red car. Why is that particular car red?
Circle all the items on your list that are clustered or recurring. You can use different colors to signify different groupings. Now think about those groupings and ask yourself why these images are recurring, how they're linked, and what relevance they have to your plot and characters. Some of your answers will be obvious, and some might give you a fresh angle to work.
The Hot Zone: Disparate But Connected Images
Next, take a look at,
the bathroom at the airport, the sinks that are always wet with the mirrors over them, why does this bring me back to an image of an open grave
There's something very hot about that set of images. We don't normally look at a sink and think of a grave. So what triggered that connection? Who is standing at the sink? Arriving or departing? Who died?
When disparate elements are so clearly linked, it's worth a bit of your time to ponder how that fits into your story. Take a look for any similar equivalances on your list. This is something deeper than mice in the forest, an image potent enough to demand description right there and then. This, instead, is an image so hot that it immediately sends its tentacles into other scenes or other aspects of the story. This is an image that will prop up a good chunk of your plot, and it's a good idea to examine whether you're letting it reach as far as it can.
So with an image like this, your job is to test its connection to all the other pieces. Let's say our person at the sink is a murderer who has managed to avoid suspicion so far. Let's say he attended the victim's funeral and is now going home, but his guilt is beginning to overwhelm his relief. Let's say everything shaped like a sink will now trigger waves of remorse.
Go through your scenes and identify everything that's hollowed out or gaping like a sink or a grave. Brainstorm a list of other things shaped like this. Think about other objects or shapes that might trigger other emotions -- a dagger was the weapon, red is the color of blood, the murder happened in a pretty white car turned red by violence, and all of these details can work themselves into the plot in other ways. The dagger shape can make him feel cold or bitter. The color white can make him edgy and angry. The color red can shock him.
There's water all over that airport sink, but our murderer will never feel clean again. Can images of water help? We already have a puddle of light in a parking lot. How are these scenes connected? What happens under that streetlight to make the murderer think of water and sinks and open graves? Did he try to wash the pretty white car after he turned it red? Did he wash his clothes or body of the blood?
Do you see how this works? It's basically a brainstorming technique, a way to trigger ideas for scenes, but also a way to explore the connective tissue between what might seem like a random list of nothing.
The Final Question
After you've done all this analysis and have thought your deep thoughts, there's one more thing you can do.
Take your list.
Pick a setting.
Ask, "What happens here?"
And write it.
You might have been stuck before you did the analysis on your list, but now, with all these hot spots identified and explored, chances are you're ready to explore the action that happens against that setting. Have fun with it!
What did you discover about your personal setting list as a result of this exercise?