Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lack of Setting

Week of April 8, 2012—JUDGE FOR YOURSELF
Tuesday, April 10, 2012—Lack of Setting

What were the issues you analyzed in your writing yesterday? I can tell you The Big Three Issues I discovered while judging those fifty-seven short stories: lack of settings, weak characters, and under-developed plots. Let’s look at Issue #3 today.

Many of the short stories I read were missing any sense of time or place. I read one story and thought from a reference to a black and white television that I must be in the 1950s or 60s, only to turn the page and read about texting. I had no idea when the story was actually taking place. Another story mentioned an unpopular war. Well that could have been the Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and even in a current-day setting. The lack of a setting is, well, unsettling.

Setting is so important that many picture books establish setting on the first page—even in the first or second sentence.

All was quiet on the Tucker farm. (Three Hens and a Peacock by Lester L. Laminack and Henry Cole)

This is me. This is my universe. (Light Up the Night by Jean Reidy and Margaret Chodos-Irvine)

This is my room before I make it fancy. (Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser)

There once was a city without gardens or trees or green-ery of any kind. (The Curious Garden by Peter Brown)

Avery kicked the toe of his boot in the dirt. He looked at everyone else at Cowboy Camp and knew he was all wrong. (Cowboy Camp by Tammi Sauer and Mike Reed)

Hints about setting can be given throughout the text. Take this example from Three Hens and a Peacock by Lester L. Laminack (illustrated by Henry Cole):

r The old hound stretched on the porch.
r But the peacock had never lived on a farm.
r Eventually, the peacock wandered down to the road.
r, , , but trouble was brewing in the henhouse.
r At sunrise the next morning the hens strutted down to the road.
r The peacock marched right to the henhouse and poked his head inside.
r The hens flocked by the road, waiting for a car.
r The peacock sucked in his tummy . . . trying to squeeze through the tiny henhouse door.
r Down by the road . . .
r. . . into the henhouse
r. . .The old hound stretched out on the porch . . .
r. . .popped out of the cramped henhouse . . .
r. . .trudged up the road . . .
r. . .marched back to the henhouse.
r. . .strutted down to the road.
r The old hound stretched out on the porch . . .

Now I’ll admit, that this picture book has more setting than many others. The setting is almost another character in this book. But this example does help to emphasize that the need for setting is imperative. We picture book authors are fortunate that we have an illustrator who is going to help tell the other half of our story and who will show our setting. But without the direction of the text (and possibly an art suggestion or two), how will the illustrator know where your story takes place?

One way to strengthen your manuscript is to create a strong setting. At SCBWI Miami, Donna Jo Napoli, author and linguist, said: “Character and plot take place in a world—a time and place.”

Tomorrow we'll discuss the problem on weak characters.

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