Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Using setting to create structure: NESCBWI Conference 2013

I'm a setting girl. I love traveling and the outdoors, and frequently my stories are inspired by place. So when author Jeannine Atkins' session promised to use setting to create structure (something I always sorely need), I signed right up. And I wasn't disappointed! Her session was full of brilliant prompts that helped create several scenes, in the beginning, middle, and end, for my current work in progress.

We started off by brainstorming a character's favorite place. And not just listing this place, but truly describing it, its sights, smells, objects, people, emotions. Jeannine had us do the same with a place a character despises, a place she misses, and a place that makes her furious.

Then Jeannine told us to put our character in her despised place, and have her think about the place she misses. Could that be our beginning?

I was blown away, because the scene I had jotted down actually could begin my whole novel. It starts in the midst of action, as my main character struggles to survive in a place she can't stand. It also throws her desire into the mix right away, as she yearns to be some place else.

Jeannine continued to challenge us with mixing these places. What if something terrible happens in my character's favorite place? What if something wonderful happens in her despised place? Take a setting element from the first scene and try connecting it to a setting element in the final scene.

 I don't want to reveal all of Jeannine's secrets, but this intermixing of settings and emotions spurred three solid pages of notes, ideas, scenes, and even a beginning and climax for my work in progress. For me, it's such a new way of thinking about both setting and structure. I know this is a set of prompts I'll return to again and again.

Also, it's got me thinking... are there any other elements of writing that I love that I can combine with aspects that are more difficult for me? After all, every piece needs to work to make the novel an organic whole. Intriguing...

I've been recapping some of my favorite sessions from the NESCBWI 2013 Conference on the blog. Last week I posted about Kate Messner's session on mystery, and making time for research, and also Gail Gauthier's session on time management.


  1. These are such awesome tips! Putting them into practice did the same for me. I moved my opening scene from a boring place with no particular importance to the story to one that is integral to it. It reveals so much more of the characters than the old setting did.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yay! So glad to hear this was so useful to you! And yes, I love how this makes setting as organic a part of the story as everything else.

  2. I get this "settings girl" thing. Totally.

  3. Oh I love that approach! And since I'm not great at setting, especially in early drafts, I'll be keeping it in mind. :-)


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