Donald Maass’ inspiring post last week showed us how we can tap into vivid personal memories to add new levels of delight (AKA “pixie dust”) to our storytelling. Later that week, Kathryn Craft’s wonderful post delved into how we can use setting to reinforce the emotional state of our characters. Today I’m going to look at some ways to use aspects of both of these approaches, with the goal of taking your readers to a world they’ve never seen – but you have.
Lessons from a loudmouth
Several years ago I stumbled across an indie film called Loudmouth Soup. The film is small in scope, focusing on a Hollywood dinner party attended by seven characters who come from various levels of the food chain within the film industry. Everybody has come to the party with an agenda (some hidden, some not so much), and a tense and often passive-aggressive dance slowly unfolds over drinks and dinner.
A few things make this film unusual. First, it was shot entirely in one night. Second, and probably most unusual, it had no script. (I know some writers who will hate this idea, but please, bear with me.) Instead, the director briefed the actors on their characters’ individual backstories, and then gave each character a set of goals, and then told them to basically do whatever they had to do to achieve them, while the cameras rolled. All the players were experienced Hollywood actors, so the director was calling on them to draw on their “insider” knowledge of those familiar shark-infested waters, and basically act like actors at a Hollywood dinner party.
Oh, and all while drinking heavily. The party may have been imaginary, but the drinks they served were real. So we get to watch a group of actors slowly getting drunk, playing the part of actors slowly getting drunk. Definitely a “meta” moment in filmmaking.
I enjoyed Loudmouth Soup, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a great movie (although I agree with much of this five-star review). I’ll admit, the unusual way the movie was made is probably its most interesting facet. If you haven’t lived in L.A. and/or been involved in the entertainment industry, much of the film might be a bit too “inside baseball” to be compelling.
But I have lived in L.A., where it seems everybody has an agenda, everybody is playing an angle, and everybody – from bank teller to studio executive – wants to be somewhere else on the food chain other than where they are right now. And that is exactly what these actors captured so well. Their knowledge of the film business allowed them to truly OWN the world in which the story was set.
For 96 minutes, those seven increasingly drunken actors whisked me back to L.A. and all its best and worst characteristics. I’ve seen few movies that evoked such a specific time and/or place so vividly – and so quickly.
So that’s what I want to look at today: how can we take our readers to a world we know intimately, and make it come to life for them? Here are a few ways – you can likely come up with even more.
Take your reader to work with you.
Even if Loudmouth Soup is not your cup of tea, a tried-and-true way to make your characters come alive is to show them at work. From John Grisham’s lawyers-in-peril to Janet Evanovich’s high-heeled bounty hunter, readers have shown a longstanding interest in what our characters do for a living. I suspect that’s because many of us spend the majority of our time at our jobs, so the highs and lows of our workdays play a major role in our emotional state of mind.
But the fact that we spend so many hours at our jobs can also give us deep and unique insights into our profession – along with an abundance of war stories – that we can use to add an extra dose of veracity and detail to our stories. And our unique experiences can allow us to take readers to a world they would not otherwise experience. Stephen King comments on this in his brilliant memoir/how-to, On Writing:
“Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do. If you’re a plumber who enjoys science fiction, you might well consider a novel about a plumber aboard a starship or on an alien planet. Sound ludicrous? The late Clifford D. Simak wrote a novel called Cosmic Engineers which is close to just that. And it’s a terrific read. What you need to remember is that there’s a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story. The latter is good. The former is not.”
Many writers have used their deep insights into specific professions – both exotic and mundane – to craft highly believable and emotionally compelling worlds.
David Bledin’s novel Bank captures the in-the-trenches grunt work going on behind investment banking. In what you might think would be a painfully dull setting, Bledin gives us a surprising amount of conflict, angst, humor, pressure, sexual tension, and actual physical danger – all while describing the life of a protagonist who spends all day sitting at a desk, endlessly tweaking Excel spreadsheets.
Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants captures the bizarre and often dangerous world of a traveling circus during the Great Depression. While Sara never actually worked for a circus, her extensive research and tremendous world-building skills make this strange and exotic setting come alive.
In his novel Everything Changes, Jonathan Tropper takes us into the frustrating and bureaucratic world of a “middleman” at the fictional Spandler Corporation. In describing his job at Spandler, Tropper’s protagonist says:
“We produce nothing. We sell nothing. We buy nothing. If we didn’t exist, Kafka would have to invent us.”
Not content to leave us with that terrific punch line, Tropper’s character elaborates:
“We call ourselves supply-chain consultants. We call ourselves outsourcing specialists. But our true vocation can be summed up in one word. We are middlemen.
We service the world’s largest companies in the overseas manufacturing of their products. We know where to go for everything you need. We have relationships with every possible type of manufacturing facility you can imagine, and many that would never occur to you.”
After going into painstaking detail about the materials his company is able to source for their clients, Tropper’s protagonist sums things up.
“I am a middleman. I hate my job.
I am the conduit between the client and the vast, stratified world of design and manufacturing. I translate abstract needs into reality, concept into construct. I am the voice of reason and experience. I bring to the vendor much-needed work, and to the client desperately sought product. I get yelled at a lot.
When you’re a middleman, everything is always your fault.”
Tropper does a wonderful job capturing a profession most of us have probably never heard of or thought about. And in addition to making it seem soul-crushing to a young man whose life is not turning out how he’d planned, it adds an extra layer of pressure and conflict to the *real* story in Everything Changes – a complex tapestry of family and romantic relationships being strained to the breaking point in ways both heart-breaking and hilarious.
I’m a big fan of Tropper’s writing, but sometimes find it hard to connect with his main characters. By delving so deeply into this character’s unglamorous day job, I think Tropper made this protagonist much more relatable than many of his other main characters, who have included a best-selling novelist, a producer for a Howard Stern-like talk-radio show, a high-profile magazine columnist, and a drummer from a one-hit-wonder rock band. (Okay, so maybe I can relate a bit more to that last one.)
Take your reader home with you.
Another way to take your reader into another world is to leverage your own familiarity with the places you’ve lived or traveled to, and imbue your settings with a level of detail and nuance that could only have been absorbed firsthand.
Florida native and lifetime resident Carl Hiaasen captures the sleaze and weirdness of Florida in a way that is simultaneously compelling, hilarious, and mercilessly accurate. One of my favorites is Stormy Weather, a story of predators swarming into South Florida after it is ravaged by a major hurricane, eager to exploit the victims of this disaster at the peak of their vulnerability. As a fellow survivor of Hurricane Andrew, I can vouch for Hiaasen’s eye for detail. And I can tell Hiaasen shares my outrage at the exploitative acts of these modern-day carpetbaggers, as he serves them up some viciously just rewards.
Annie Proulx has a gift for capturing the lives of people who live and work in remote and rustic worlds, whether it’s the icy coast of Newfoundland (The Shipping News), a sheep-grazing range in rural Wyoming (Brokeback Mountain), or a struggling ranch town in the Texas Panhandle (That Old Ace in the Hole). Although she was raised in New England and now lives in Seattle, Proulx has clearly done some moving around, and has actually lived in both Wyoming and Newfoundland.
An even more avid traveler was Ernest Hemingway, whose work was deeply influenced by the many places he visited and lived. The Sun Also Rises captures the essence of the time he spent in France and Spain; Islands in the Stream reflects a very different way of life in the Caribbean, influenced by the extensive time he spent on the islands of Bimini and Cuba. For Whom the Bell Tolls gives us another look at Spain through Hemingway’s eyes – and his ears. In this book, he adopts an unusual style of writing that at many times seems to be a literal translation from Spanish, a fascinating (and sometimes criticized) approach to immersing the reader even more deeply in how Hemingway’s characters think, feel and communicate.
Take your reader to another time.
Yet another way to transport your reader is to focus your story on what it’s like to live during a specific time or era. You might choose your childhood, your coming-of-age years, or instead focus on a social trend or shift you observed and/or experienced.
You could even focus on a current social shift, or an era-specific experience that you’re having right now. That’s essentially what F. Scott Fitzgerald did when writing The Great Gatsby, capturing in real time the decadence, social upheaval and class conflict of the Roaring Twenties.
Jessica Keener’s wonderful debut novel Night Swim takes us back to what it was like to be a teenager in the ’70s, highlighting the many elements that made that era such a confusing and turbulent time to be alive: class, race, war, sex, drugs, music, and a growing epidemic of family dysfunction that nobody yet knew how to talk about.
You’ll see even more examples of era-specific storytelling in TV and film, with shows like The Wonder Years, That ’70s Show, and most recently Mad Men. Some great “time capsules on film” include Stand by Me (based on Stephen King’s novella The Body), Almost Famous, The Wedding Singer, and A Walk on the Moon. I’m sure you can think of countless others.
Focus on the feeling.
The authors I’m citing above are doing more than simply describing a job, place or time with technical accuracy. At their best, they are capturing what it *feels* like to work at that job, to live in those locations, and to navigate those social eras.
I think that’s what we need to focus on as writers: how working at that job made us feel, how living in that location affected us emotionally, how seeing/experiencing some era-specific trend (which could range from the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam War to online dating and selfie sticks) impacted the way we feel about the world – and about ourselves.
The great thing about this is that each of us will have our own unique viewpoint, based on our own unique experiences. So even if we’re writing in a crowded genre, we each have the ability to bring a fresh perspective to the worlds we create and share.
But my life has been boring, and I haven’t traveled or lived somewhere exotic…
I often hear people complain about leading average or unexciting lives. But I guarantee that we each have had unique experiences that have shaped us as people – and as writers. You may simply need to spend some time in self-examination, looking for what might be unique about your own perspective.
Perhaps you came from a large family, and you think nothing is unusual about that. But to somebody like me, who comes from a small family, I feel simultaneously overwhelmed and fascinated by the complex and conflicting dynamics I observe when I spend time with large families. You could hook me as a reader by capturing the nuance of those dynamics.
You might consider your job boring. But when novels about spreadsheet jockeys and middlemen can keep me on the edge of my seat, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some drama or conflict in a job you’ve held that you could leverage into a plot point or two.
Maybe you came from a small town, where nothing exciting ever happened – at least in your eyes. But in the claustrophobic constraints of a town so small that everybody knows everybody else’s business, I submit that there’s plenty of potential for drama and conflict.
And I don’t think any of us can claim that we’ve only lived in a boring or uneventful social era. We’re certainly not in one now, nor have we been during my 50+ years on this planet. So I don’t believe we have any valid excuses on that front.
Do all stories need this kind of approach? I don’t know. But if you’ve got some deep knowledge of a world that is probably unfamiliar to most, why not look for a way to tap into it?
How about you?
Are there books, movies or TV shows that knocked you out with how well they captured a specific place or time? How do you try to evoke your own unique memories or experiences in the fictional worlds you build? What are some other elements that can make the worlds in our stories more vivid, more compelling, and more real? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!
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