Friday, August 6, 2010

The Drama of a Place

I've been discussing ways to add tension to your stories, by making better use of elements such as the villain or secondary characters. You can also look to your setting for more drama. Sometimes the possibilities are obvious. In my Mayan historical adventure, The Well of Sacrifice, I opened with the heroine gathering medicinal plants in the jungle, and running into a tribe of savages. In later chapters, she gets trapped inside the dead king’s sealed tomb, and then thrown into a sacrificial well. How's that for a dramatic use of setting!

But not every book has to have tombs or cliffs. Even everyday settings such as school or a suburban neighborhood can provide elements for adding drama, humor, or other interest.

In the Haunted books, the "setting" is a traveling ghost hunter TV show, with different specific settings for each book. In my first version of The Ghost on the Stairs, the kids watched some of the filming, but I didn’t use the TV show much. While expanding the novel, I added a chapter where they try out the ghost hunter gadgets, and another where their stepfather interviews people who have claimed to see the ghost. Both these offered opportunities for humor, as only the kids knew whether the gadgets were really working, and whether the interview subjects were telling the truth.

I used the individual settings specific to each book as well. The Riverboat Phantom takes place on a Mississippi steamboat, where action scenes include a fight in the boiler room and a ghost-induced hurricane on the top deck. The Knight in the Shadows starts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and involves a subway journey to The Cloisters. The MET and The Cloisters are full of interesting elements. A subway is even more intriguing to a kid who's never been on one, but add a ghost to the mix, and you get action and humor.

Tip: Look for ways to use your setting to add complications. What if the weather changed? What if they went somewhere without cell phone reception? What if they had to pass through a bad neighborhood—or sneak through a rich gated community with a guard? If your setting could be Anywhere, USA, charge it up for dramatic value.

Example: Look at the movie Sweet Home Alabama. Would it be the same if the main character only had to go home to New Jersey?


  1. Just after posting this, I started reading Albert Zuckerman's Writing the Blockbuster Novel. He recommends an exotic or unusual setting, as readers like to learn about someplace new, but notes that one should work the setting details into the action, and color them with emotion through the point of view character's eyes. He's talking about adult novels, but that's good advice for all fiction writing.