Sunday, July 24, 2011

Creating the Most Engaging Environment--Working the "Container" of Your Story

Writing teachers often cite the trio of event, character, and setting:  major elements to keep track of in your manuscript.  This trio is key to any genre, memoir, fiction, or nonfiction.

All books have something happening, illustrated by scene or anecdote.  That's event.

There's always someone this event happens to, be it fictional character, real-life narrator, or reader.

And there's always
a place where it occurs, the setting.   Together, the trio create an alchemy.  This alchemy engages your reader and brings meaning to your writing.

I always understood event.  I wrote things happening and I enjoyed looking for the drama in my nonfiction anecdotes, my memoir memories, my fictional scenes.  I love studying people and the way they tick, so I always understood the character element too.

But setting was perplexing.  It was easy to write descriptions of physical setting--trees, fields, mountains; the dirty dishes in the sink, the towels on the bathroom floor; the dusty streets of a summer town.  But physical setting never seemed to cover all the aspects I loved in a good book.

What about the culture of the town?
Or the church everyone (who wanted to belong) attended?
What about the political beliefs of a family as a group?
Or the morals and ethics?

These didn't necessarily apply to an individual, but more to the group consciousness as a whole.  Their history as a cultural unit.  Didn't this affect the story and have to do with a kind of setting?  The more I thought about it, the less adequate the word setting felt.  It seemed way too narrow a term to encompass so many vessels that could contain a story. 

So I began to imagine this composite of physical, emotional, political, religious, and cultural setting of a story as a container, like a large beaker in a lab.  It held the experiment of the story, as it bubbled away.  Container became for me a limited but vivid vessel that held my story together--restricting characters until one of them breaks free.  I liked thinking of my setting in this expanded way because it let me really explore the environment that would create the best story.

Container Is Fully Developed Yet Limited
Many writers duly write setting because they're told it's important.  They put in a couple of trees, some rooftops, a few sounds if they're lucky.  But container is much more than this.  It requires the writer to research the background of the story's environment, what made the place what it is at the time the story begins.

Container must be fully developed by the writer, and some of us don't want to do this work.  But a reader really appreciates it.  I remember one of my favorite scenes in Andre Dubus's House of Sand and Fog, where Kathy and Les are in a rooftop restaurant in San Francisco.  As Les reveals something very secret to Kathy, the restaurant is revolving and showing her a different view every few minutes, truly an experience of disorientation.  Here's an example of container really showing us this important moment--and not just physical setting but the drug background of Kathy (a revolving scene indeed) is echoed beautifully in this location.

Your container means everything to the emotional effect of your writing and whether the story engages the reader.  You must know and use the culture and background of your players:  Imagine a young woman of Cuban ancestry placed in a small town in Norway.  Because of her background, her cultural container, she'll act differently than she would in Miami, yes?  Container is what makes that difference.

Container influences event as well.  On a very sultry day, different things happen than on a winter's night.  Or a nuclear waste plant versus a family farm--events will be quite changed by these two containers.

This week's exercise lets you consider how your container could be more fully developed setting, how it can more effectively serve as a frame for how people and events move in your story.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Make a list of three important physical settings in your book. 
2.  Now assign a primary image to each of these settings.  What does the character notice, hear, smell, taste, feel (as in air temperature or texture, not internal feelings of mood)?
3.  How does this image reflect something about the character's container, or cultural past?
4.  How could you align the image more closely?


  1. Mary, this is a great description of container. I understood the outer and inner physical aspects, but adding the religious, political, etc. aspects really do make a difference. Thanks for this!