Time and place in the breakout novel
- From: Helen Hall <mhall@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Sat, 18 Mar 2006 15:20:05 +0000
I was away in Cardiff last weekend, so I couldn't do another chapter
summary of Donald Maass's _Writing the Breakout Novel_ book, but here
now are his thoughts on setting.
Maass starts out by saying that setting is one of the most important
elements of a successful novel, yet it's one many novelists feel is
something of a chore to include. (I think from recent threads, that that
applies to some people here. :-)) However, this does not mean that a
writer needs to include pages of description. A strong sense of time and
place can also be inclued by means of other things, such as dialogue,
clothes, modes of transport etc. (Which was something also pointed out
by Jonathan when he said in a previous thread that his readers stopped
asking for more description of the location when he started feeding them
other details of the world.)
Even if you are a writer who likes describing locations, the world of
the novel is much more than just descriptions of landscapes or rooms.
You have to show the, "milieu, period, fashion, ideas, human outlook,
historical moment, spiritual mood and more. [...] Bringing people alive
in a place and time that are alive is the essence of it."
He says that it's the psychology of place that is most important, the
"psychological influence of inert physical surroundings." Make the place
a character in the story. As a writer, you need to show how your
settings make your characters *feel*. It doesn't actually matter how it
looks, but its psychological effect on the characters is vital. Give
your characters an active relationship to the places they move through.
Maass recommends avoiding chunks of description in a detached omni
viewpoint. Instead, do the description by showing how the place is
experienced by a character.
A story also needs a sense of time, both in the "time passing" sense and
in the "period of history" sense. Again he recommends showing this via a
Social context is also vital. What class, what social position do your
characters inhabit? Does their status rise of fall?
He also suggests that the writer consider carefully whether the
characters have freedom to choose their own destinies or whether they
are mere puppets of fate. How does the universe at large (or God if you
believe in him/her) treat the characters? He suggests that all breakout
novels, "have a moment of unexpected tragedy or grace." This, he
suggests, lends verisimilitude to the story because this sort of thing
happens in real life. However, as an unbeliever, I will gloss over the
bit about God being at work in the novel and how this will enable the
writer to give readers "an experience that is humbling, joyful and maybe
even transforming." To a Brit, that sounds like the American tendency to
sentimentality, though I suppose it's like everything; it can be done
well or badly.
Meanwhile, back on the safer ground of setting...
He asks whether any of the scenes in your current novel are set in a
kitchen. At this point I sheepishly hold up my hand. However, it is the
characters' place of work and I do try to use as many other locations as
Maass points out that kitchens, living rooms, offices and suchlike
mundane places are familiar and comfortable, but he asks what resonance
they have? Very little, usually. Think dramatic. Unlike a film, it costs
no more to set a scene in a dramatic place than it does to set it in the
And then we're back to detail again. Use detail to evoke a place. As
Maass says, "A place is the sum of its parts." or to sum up: "The
breakout novelist does not merely set a scene; she unveils a unique
place, one resonant with a sense of time, woven through with social
threads and full of the destinies the universe has in store for us all.
She does not merely describe a setting, she builds a world. She then
sets her characters free in that world to experience all it has to
Helen, Gwynedd, Wales *** http://www.baradel.demon.co.uk
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