Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Writing 101: Setting the Stage

I read about these women in Burma, once. They put these coils around their necks in order to stretch them out, starting from birth. The old women in the village have these long, extended necks with coils wrapped all the way up. I’m not from Burma, so it’s hard for me to comprehend why anyone would do this, but they think that long necks are beautiful. When you’re an author, you have to set the stage for your readers so they can understand your characters. If I’m from New York City, I may not understand what it’s like to be a farmgirl from Kansas or one of those women from Burma. It’s your job to make me understand that. Do it by setting the stage.

Staging the Scene

In the medieval era, the Church officially believed that women did not have souls. Women were not human beings. They were pieces of property, and their worth could be measured against something like a cow or a piece of land. It’s hard for a modern-day woman to understand that world, a world in which women did not often speak their minds and were not welcome to pursue the skills that interested them. Women were not often writers in the medieval era; most of them could not read. So if you’re going to write a book that’s set in that time, you’re going to need to make sure that I as the reader can understand it.

In other words, don’t just throw your readers right into a world or into someone’s life without the proper context. If I don’t understand that women in the medieval era don’t speak up for themselves, I might sit through a book screaming at a heroine that I think is wimpy. “Why isn’t she saying anything!” I’ll be yelling, and you won’t hear me but you will read my scathing review later. Don't ever assume that your readers understand your setting, whether it's set in the Middle Ages or on a farm in Kansas.

Always set the stage by giving readers some background, laying some groundwork scenes, or simply explaining the world to them in a straight-on second person narrative. Give readers proper context before your characters start making decisions. Otherwise, the readers may end up confused instead.

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