Grounding the Fictional World

Through the tone you establish and the language you use, you’ve brought the reader into your story. Maybe you’re sitting in your favorite place to write, on a wind-swept beach on the coast of Brazil, say, so caught up in the world you’ve created that you haven’t written anything beyond the first page for the last hour. The water’s so blue, the sun so bronze, the horizon so far, that you’re in love with your creation. The reader’s in your world. Now you need to come down back down to this one. Think place, think detail, think character. The reader will want to know quickly what’s going on here? And that means what’s going on with a character.

A poet in Monterey, California read a gloomy poem during the worst summer fog in twenty years, and when he finished and said he would move on to something more cheerful and started reading a poem full of squabbling characters, fouled by the endless fog, someone in the audience yelled “Thank God!” Readers want to know about people. Introduce a character soon in the story and ground the scene. Grounding the scene means using detail to put the reader in a particular place – a room, a prison, a garbage dump, or in wilderness. It means using detail to create the appearance of setting. It means letting the reader know where he is in time – night, day, maybe a year, maybe not. This does not mean chronicling objects but giving the reader enough specifics about characters, who they are, where they are, in time and space, that the reader knows where he is.

So here we are again, back to character, back to voice. Who is the character? Where is she? How old is she? What is she doing? Grounding the scene grounds the reader in the world of the story. How best to do this? Use the tools of your craft. Did you think this was all art?

Great art rests upon great craft. Think small.


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