Sunday, September 6, 2009

How To Write a Romance Novel--Setting

This is where the series becomes nerdy. OK, I like literature and the analysis thereof. I earned two degrees in it. But I believe Romance is worthy of and stands up to literary analysis. So bear with me while I write about stuff you may have learned in high school (or probably dozed through as your teacher presented it).

Last week I talked about the Hook, a crucial element in writing any novel. You want to draw the reader in. And then what? A hook does not a novel make. So today I’m looking at what constitutes a novel, what elements make up a novel. Every novel has five elements: setting, characters and characterization, plot, style and presentation, and theme. All five of these elements combine to create a rich event that carries the reader through to a new world, new ideas, and, at least for my authorial purposes, entertainment. Take out any one of these elements, and a book flounders. You can’t have a book without setting, characters, plot (although I’m sure literary fiction has tried this one—oops, that’s snarky), and theme (This is the one that Romance is accused of overlooking. Boy, does that ever irritate me.)

Each element deserves its own blog entry, so we’ll start with setting. Setting is more than where and when a story takes place. It is also special weather conditions, social conditions, and mood and atmosphere. But setting is important to a Romance novel because often setting establishes which subgenre of Romance the book falls into.

The three major breakdowns in Romance are contemporary, historical, and paranormal; but within each of those categories are further subdivisions. Within contemporary, for example, you have romantic comedy, romantic suspense, action-adventure, family saga, chick lit, etc. Within historical there’s medieval, Regency, Victorian, Georgian, Tudor, Edwardian, ancient, etc. Within paranormal possibilities include urban fantasy, contemporary, historical, futuristic, fantasy, science fiction, and so on. Setting helps establish all these subgenres.

Where the story takes place is the first thing someone thinks of when asked for setting. Place clearly helps set up the novel. The reader needs to know where the story is set. She needs a base from which to embark, a place that can help her begin to visualize the world of the book. It makes a difference if the book starts off in modern San Diego, an estate in Regency England, or standing on a grassy purple plain watching the setting of the six suns in the pale green sky of Planet Jellicorp. Your setting establishes reader expectation.

Time plays the same role. Reader expectation is different for books set in the present, past, or future. But don’t forget time of day or time of year. A book’s feel is different if the opening is at night or in the morning. Your description will vary between winter and summer. We’ll talk more about description in the future, but for now know that it is necessary for the reader to know where the book is taking place.

Weather conditions are an aspect of setting that shouldn’t come up too often, but when it does, it will make an impact. Think about the cyclone in WIZARD OF OZ or the rainstorm in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. In both instances, these weather anomalies must happen to further the plot. By the way, this includes natural phenomenon, like the tidal wave in POSEIDON ADVENTURE.

Social conditions are an integral part of the story as well. Especially in contemporaries, social conditions may not play a major role, but picture a Regency without the rules of society. Or any European set historical without the rules of class. And in many futuristics, social setting is crucial to the story. The new YA best selling series, THE HUNGER GAMES, requires its social conditions as part of its story. And where would 1984 be without the social conditions?

Mood and atmosphere are the final aspects of setting. Is your story Gothic? Is it light and happy? Does the atmosphere speak of danger or laughter? If your novel starts out light and humorous, it shouldn’t end with dead puppies. On the other hand, your story shouldn’t be so intense that it leaves the reader exhausted. Mood and atmosphere can vary in a novel. Real life does. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling moves from humor to tragedy in a seamless manner. And it’s all a part of setting.

Setting is interesting in that it sinks into the background once it is established. When setting comes into the foreground, it should appear for a reason: to announce a place change—from London to a country house, from the space ship to the planet, etc; an important description—in my book, THE WISH LIST, I describe a painting because it will play a role later in the story; weather will change the direction of the plot; etc. Setting pops in and out of the story then sinks into the background. As a savvy reader, you should notice when setting comes forward because it can be a clue to something important. Setting can be so important that the novel couldn’t take place with those characters, with that plot without that particular setting.

So if you’re working on a novel, you know where your story is taking place. Now consider what your setting says about your novel, and be aware of its role in your novel.

Next time, we’ll look at characters.
Books I’m reading now:
On a Wicked Dawn by Stephanie Laurens
Duchess in Love by Eloisa James

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