Inventing settings; improving on "he said"
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: August 12, 2008
|I'm writing a story set in an actual city, but I'm not staying true to the reality of it. How much can I invent? |
You're putting imagined characters in imagined situations. Why stop there? Plenty of writers invent within real places. You might create a restaurant your characters adore, or have them take a photography class at a fictionalized institute. You might create a mansion nestled on an imagined leafy street. Or populate the Howard Meyer Elementary School with gifted children, even though there's no such school in real life.
But this invention should be anchored in some solid reality. Otherwise, why set the story in that real city? For example, Lake Michigan is a part of every Chicagoan's life, whether they run daily along the lakeside trail or simply navigate city streets knowing the lake indicates east. Making Chicago landlocked would hinder believability. If you're off on that detail, what else can't the reader trust?
Draw on selected realities to give the setting relevance. Why is that city important to this story? Perhaps it's the chaos of downtown, or proximity to the stock exchange where your character works, or the diversity of the population. Draw from those details of reality to bring authenticity to your story. Don't stick to the obvious attributes, as that can make the setting feel like it was written with the aid of a travel guide instead of an intimate understanding of the place. Audrey Niffenegger's novel The Time Traveler's Wife has characters living in Ravenswood, working at the Newberry Library, eating at Ann Sather, and breaking into the Army Surplus store on Belmont. All are Chicago institutions, but not the obvious tourist staples.
If the confines of using a real place makes you feel too bound to reality, you might find it helpful to stay true to the region, but fictionalize the specific place. That's what Charles Baxter did with Five Oaks, Michigan, the setting for several of his fictions, including his novel Saul and Patsy. Five Oaks is entirely fictionalized, but it has the flavor of very real, small, Midwestern towns.
If you do have something geographically unexpected occur in a real place, you'll want to make sure there's good reason behind it, and that inhabitants acknowledge the strangeness. A snowstorm isn't going to rage in Nairobi, Kenya in real life, so if it does in your story, it should be an anomaly, accompanied by increased road accidents, news stories, and a lot of confusion. Indeed, strange things do happen. But if what you imagine really tests the boundaries of what is possible, you might just find that you're dabbling in magic realism.
Using "he said" or "she said" to indicate who is talking sounds awkward sometimes. How can I change things up but still make it clear who is speaking?
"Said" is the most common verb for dialogue tags, those short phrases that indicate who does the speaking. This is with good reason, as the word is unobtrusive. Yet, it can start to feel heavy-handed, particularly if you have an exchange that involves a lot of back and forth between characters.
Sometimes you can simply eliminate the tag. Use content and voice to clarify who is speaking:
"I can't believe we're doing this again," he said.
"Why? This isn't your idea of a good time?"
"Please, let's just drop it."
"If only it were that easy."
Because these two speakers are taking opposite ends of an argument, it's clear who says what for a few volleys without having to use tags.
You can also use action to indicate a speaker. Simply eliminate the tag and replace it with an action that's done by the person who speaks. This is also a good way to expand upon the dialogue:
"Let's attack that list." Jen stood on the end of the grocery cart, ready to be
wheeled down the aisles like a child.
"Can we do this without a lot of hoopla?"
The action lets the reader know Jen said the dialogue, and also conveys tone. She's not resigned or angry. She's taking a playful approach to the chore of shopping. And her companion's not exactly in the same sort of mood.
Resist the temptation to overuse other tag verbs in a quest to shake things up. Too many can feel contrived. And the dialogue itself should convey how something was said. Strong verbs can add some zest, but only when well placed and used sparingly.
--Posted Aug. 12, 2008
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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