A Container for Our Characters

Welcome, Writer Friends!

Here’s what we’re looking to accomplish this week:

  • Learn how to use setting to “convince [the reader] that the story could actually happen”;
  • Write a description of a place that implies the emotional state of our main character; and,
  • Read a short story by Stephen King about a dude and his dad having lunch at Applebees before the whole thing goes kablooey in that completely King way, and study the way he creates a reality as believable as his novels but in a much smaller space.

Nothing Happens Nowhere

“Nothing happens nowhere” is one of my favorite bits of advice in Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction. Every time I read a student story that begins with dialogue—two people talking, even before the author has established where the heck these people are—I remember this quote from Burroway.

I probably start to twitch a little, too. Of all my pet peeves—and every teacher has them, and every reader too, so don’t let us fool you—beginning with dialogue might be the one that bothers me the most, and the deepest.

Students will argue that plenty of movies they’ve seen begin with two people talking, even sometimes with people talking over a blank, black screen.

I challenge them with this: even the dialogue happening over a black screen in a film is happening somewhere. Whether that somewhere is a modern cinema with reclining seats and cup holders, a vintage movie house with an ornate ceiling held over from its days as a vaudeville theater, or the bedroom you and your partner Netflix-and-chill in—those words and that black screen are still happening somewhere.

A line of dialogue as the first line of a story is happening nowhere. Or, well, it might be happening in that same bedroom where you’ve just turned off Netflix to read, but I’ll bet it isn’t going to be happening for very long if the story starts with nothing but talking heads. The writer’s goal in a story is to lure the reader out of that room and into their story. Film has the distinct auditory qualities of one or more human voices to help set a scene happening over a black screen, maybe even additional layers of audio in the form of sound effects and music. All a writer’s got are the words on the page.

Make them count. Don’t begin with dialogue.

Well, Actually…

Students who won’t let the argument go will inevitably bring up some story they’ve read—maybe even a story I’ve had them read in class—which breaks this rule.

This is another thing that grates on me.

As writers, we should use the advice and the examples we read as permission to try new things. But we should never use that advice or those examples as an excuse when we fail. Go back to the advice or the example and read it again. See what the writer was really trying to say, or how they did what they did. Then try again.

If I tell you the dialogue at the beginning of your story isn’t working, don’t throw Jill McCorkle’s “Hominids” back at me because I had you read it last week. Instead, re-read “Hominids” and see how the “dialogue” at the beginning is really narration and scene-setting that just happens to be inside quotation marks.

“I’m thinking I will have myself a restaurant known as Peckers, and as my model I will use Hooters, where one of Bill’s buddies likes to go on Friday night. I will have a woodpecker instead of an owl and waiters instead of waitresses. They will wear uniforms that are, shall I say, a bit revealing below the belt and as manager my job will be saying who looks good in the outfit and who doesn’t. Sorry, that’s business. It’s not harassment if you say right up front that Peckers is all about peckers. The Pecker Burger, the Pecker Shake, the foot-long Peckerdog, the Pecker who serves you. There will be lots of cute puns about wood, redheaded, etc. I think it will be a huge success.”

I make this speech to the group—Bill’s old friends and their wives—gathered for the golf weekend Bill pulls together every year. Golf is the excuse for the get-together even though…

Yes, this breaks the rule. But how does it break the rule? The answer to that question—how?—is way more important than whether we agree that the rule was broken in the first place.

Yeah, But Why’s It Matter?

Why is setting so important? In his book Ron Carlson Writes a Story, Mr. Carlson puts it this way: “I use Boyle’s law—from Chemistry—many times when talking about scene: we need a container into which to put our material so we can heat it up and find out what it is made of.”

The best settings have a profound effect on both the character and the reader. Think about the kinds of landscapes or rooms that lift your spirits, the kinds that depress you. When a story is set in the jungles of Vietnam in the 1960s, that’s bound to create a different feel than a modern story set in an artist’s commune off the coast of Maine.

But also: setting is also inextricably linked with character. When you read that line about the jungles of Vietnam above, did you imagine the American perspective on that war that we’ve seen in so many Hollywood films or in Tim O’Brien’s masterful story “The Things They Carried”? What if that same story were told from the perspective of a young Vietnamese soldier who’d grown up with the peaceful, playful stories of their grandfather and his grandfathers before him? What if that same story were told from the perspective of that grandfather, looking out on some patch of wilderness where he used to play with his runty cousin when he was young. Can you imagine how the things he’d notice about that jungle might be different than the things the American soldier would notice? Or how they’d look at the same thing in two different ways? That tree in the distance, the one that the American worries might be the hiding place of the enemy, that tree might have been the place where Grandfather’s races with his runty cousin always ended, the place that Grandfather dreamed one day he’d reach first—that finish line Grandfather dreamed of crossing before his cousins some day, before the cousin crossed life’s finish line first and his somedays ran out.

Lastly: that artist’s commune in Maine, which is inspired in my mind by Richard Russo’s masterful “Monhegan Light,” might be a paradise to the painters who call it home. But what do those rocky shores mean for the widower who has come to confront the man who painted a stunning nude portrait of his late wife? Something very different indeed.

The Trick

The trick to writing a compelling setting, to providing us with what Carlson calls the “evidence that will convince us that the story could actually happen,” is giving yourself an inventory of details to work with.

You’re never going to use all of the details you write down about a setting, but if you’re stumped on where to begin, try sitting for five minutes and jotting down everything you can imagine about the place you’re about to write about.

Then, once you know that setting like the back of your hand, comes the last and most important question: how do we know what to describe and what to skip?

Well, aside from thinking about what the character would notice, ask yourself this: what matters? What needs to be there? Here’s a powerful lesson from playwriting that we can carry across genres: think about someone having to find the rug you’re describing, or having to build that front end of a 1967 Cadillac El Dorado convertible. Think about what each piece of setting would accomplish if it were on stage. If it isn’t entirely necessary, don’t waste that imaginary stage manager, prop master, or set builder’s time.

Many of the evenings of theater I’ve been involved in, or have enjoyed the most as an audience member, have included an incredible number of set changes—whether because they were evenings of short plays, or ambitious full-lengths—and the way that they pulled me into the reality of their story without hiring a hundred stagehands to change every little detail in between each scene, is by picking a few select details and making those feel so real that I can imagine everything else myself.


This week, I’m going to ask you to write several versions of the same passage. Here’s what you do:

  1. Take 5 minutes and write down a list of items you might find in a dorm room. Get as specific and quirky as you can.
  2. Write a passage about a person alone in the dorm room of a person they’re longing to hook up with. The potential hook-up is out of the room (in the bathroom, getting food, or elsewhere). Use several of the items you wrote down in step one to describe the room, with a focus on describing them from your horny protagonist’s point of view. What do they notice, in particular about each object? Do some objects send them off down a rabbit hole of emotions?
  3. Rewrite your passage. This time, the person wants to break up with the person to whom the room belongs. Use at least some of the same items you used before. But remember that this time those items will be seen through a different lens.
  4. Rewrite the passage again, this time with a scenario of your own invention. Again: use at least some of the same items you did in the first two versions.

Reading Assignment

Give Stephen King’s “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” a read and see if you can notice how he’s using specific details to conjure each of the big settings in this short story—Sanderson’s car and the Applebees that Sanderson and his dad visit for lunch. King’s descriptions of setting in his novels can be a bit overdone, because he’s got the room to over do them, but his short stories are a marvel because he creates the same Kingesque reality in our heads with far fewer words.

Let me know how it goes. You can always reach me at chris@clarkwoods.com. And, beginning this week, you can also hire me to critique a story you've written or to mentor you all the way through a story that you’ve just begun to think about.

Good luck! And we’ll see you back here next week.