Small Town Settings: Cute Nostalgia or Dark Secrets?

Spello 2They’ve become a fixture of American literature because they’re a fixture of American geography: those dinky little towns of 500 to 2,000 souls, clinging desperately to the industry or the Interstate that keeps them from disappearing into the empty places of this country. Though few people like to live in these places, many of us like to read stories set in an American small town.

On one level, this setting is appealing because it offers a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, when the whole town knew your name and you could count on any of them to help you out of a tight spot. To a degree, small towns in popular culture signify communal trust and the virtues of a small, close-knit family. That’s why, when you need a character who’s a bit naive, one of the go-to choices for backstory is to have them come from an itty-bitty town way out in the sticks.

However, as anyone who actually grew up in one of these towns can tell you, it’s very easy to lose that wide-eyed innocence without moving to the big city. The dark side of small towns in America is well-known: these places tend to be isolated, insular, and plagued by poverty and bad education. In fiction, that’s just the start of the trouble. Drugs in the water supply, doomsday cults, serial killers, and beautiful families of teenage vampires are just some of the dark secrets held by small towns in American literature.

So, why do we insist on keeping up this idea that we, that any of us, perceive a small town to be a cute little oasis of innocence in a mean ol’ urban world? You can argue that it’s political, and it probably is, but it’s also probably because of the prideful cynicism we have in this country. Yes, we want to be the one to debunk that inspirational quote on our friend’s Facebook. We want to be the first one to tell Aunt Hortense that her chain e-mail is an urban legend. If we admit that we already know that a small town is just as dark and dangerous as the Big Scary City, then we lose the chance to re-live that beautiful smug journey toward Being Right All Along.

So, when you decide to set a story in a small town, feel free to paint it as the cheery, innocent place where you’d just love to settle down and start a family. Your audience won’t mind – especially if you later give them a chance to “discover” the hidden dark side of your All-American setting.

Adding Suspense to Character Development

Joules looking up at a peachA little over a year ago, I landed wrong after hopping a fence and sprained my ankle badly. Although it doesn’t hurt anymore, it didn’t quite heal right, so my left ankle is much knobblier and more puffy than my right. This kind of thing happens to people all the time. We’ll get through some calamity – minor or major, physical or mental – without severe permanent damage, but we’ll be marked by it in some way for the rest of our lives.

Fiction writers will frequently create characters who have been shaped by a traumatic event in their pasts. These characters may have strange mannerisms or attitudes; they may be difficult to get along with; they may even show impulses that shock the reader at first viewing. It’s tempting to explain these quirks as soon as humanly possible, but giving into that temptation might not be a good idea.

When you have a main character with a troubled past, you have the opportunity to add a degree of suspense to your character development. The character’s behavior becomes a mystery that the audience wants to solve – but not too quickly. In real life, people carefully set boundaries about the parts of themselves that they see as the most vulnerable. The audience expects your characters to behave the same way, only letting their guard down and revealing the secret to the mystery when they’re talking with someone they trust completely.

Ideally, the moment when a characters’ old wounds are finally explained to the audience is dramatic and satisfying. The reader finally has an explanation for behavior that has mystified them throughout your story. To pull this off, however, you need to be sure to realistically portray your character keeping their guard up until the moment is ideal for an important revelation which has a significant effect on the plot.

Keeping Your Promise to the Reader

Forget-me-notI’m currently in the midst of a fantasy novel I’ve been wanting to read for years, and I have to confess that I have mixed feelings about it. I try to avoid naming and reviewing books I have yet to finish, but I will allow them to inspire a rant or two about how to treat your readers.

In general, I’ve found that the casual reader is a very forgiving person. They want to like your book; once you have convinced them of its entertainment value or academic worth, they tend to go into it with a certain willingness to believe that it’s really very good. However, you need to remember that you only have so much reader goodwill to work with. It might be fifty pages in, or it might be a hundred pages in, but it will happen eventually: that ‘new book smell’ will wear off, and the reader will start expecting you to actually deliver what you promised on the back cover.

“Don’t mess around with your reader’s expectations” sounds much more basic than it is. It requires you to look carefully at your work every so often and ask yourself how you’re delivering what your reader wants. For every section (and what these sections are depends on your story), there needs to be a ‘payout,’ and all of these small ‘payouts’ need to eventually come together to produce the grand prize that drew your readers to the book in the first place.

At my current place in the novel I’m reading, I have found these ‘payouts’ to be few and far between. The language is lovely, the jokes (when they’re made) make me chuckle, and I get the sense that something might actually start to happen if I’m good and patient and stick with it for just another fifty pages. Trust me when you say that you do not want to hear this about your novel – particularly if you’re trying for a commercial success. Your readers are generally kind and patient and willing to believe in your premise; however, if you fail to deliver on that premise, you will eventually lose their interest.

Epistolary Storytelling

Dandelion seed-headMost writers eventually find themselves writing about some kind of text. A lover might leave a note that changes the course of a novel, or a character may complain about a major plot event in his diary. Some writers take things a little further by using an epistolary structure to frame an entire narrative.

Epistolary stories are told entirely or in large part through texts. Traditionally, they’re told through letters, but modern works like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Joseph Fink’s Welcome to Night Vale have used everything from advertisements to elaborate fake scholarly articles to tell their stories. Generally speaking, these narratives don’t break the fourth wall – they get their appeal from the way they communicate with an audience as fictional as they are.

The thing about epistolary narratives – and this can make them either excellent or wildly inappropriate for your story – is that they ask you to manage a very complex relationship. The narrator is communicating with an audience which exists within the universe you’ve created for the story, but the readers who pick up your book in real life are the ones who really need the information. You need to carefully and subtly work in world-building elements when you write an epistolary narrative. The narrator will need to spend some time talking about how people in your story go about their day, and their linguistic choices need to represent their background and their personalities.

A lot of writers don’t write many stories in epistolary form, but there are some who find it’s the most effective way to tell about a story. If you want to challenge your readers, some form of epistolary narrative can certainly help you provide an unusual and colorful narrative. However, writers should be extra conscious of clarity when using this intimate narrative form.

Making Sure Your Writing Has a Job to Do

SainfoinNow and then, I come across a scene in my writing that I desperately want to like. It might be beautifully written, or it might contain some interesting details, or it might contain a charming minor character. Nonetheless, the scene comes across as lackluster and screams “delete me” at full volume. More often then not, this is because the scene isn’t doing enough work for my narrative.

A good story is like a well-designed machine. All of its parts work well together, and no part is left unemployed. A bloated narrative is hard to follow and tends to bore your reader. If you want to make sure that your stories are lean, mean, reader-engaging machines, you should make sure that every scene is doing plenty of work for your story.

Its is not enough for a scene to “add to the scenery description” or “add to the character development.” Your strongest scenes will do two or three different jobs for your story, and if you want to succeed as a commercial writer, your work needs to be entirely composed of your strongest scenes. If you like a scene but don’t know if you need it, ask yourself what it’s contributing to the story. Is there information elsewhere that you could convey in this scene instead? If so, then great! You can shorten a less interesting part of your narrative and help this scene be stronger and more useful.

Being efficient with your writing is more than a matter of wise word choice and effective sentence structure. It also involves making sure that every scene in your story contributes to more than one element of your narrative. Although you don’t want to overburden your scenes, making sure that they’re all gainfully employed is an important part of strengthening your writing.

Perfect Pacing

SnailWhether we’re reading a book or watching a movie, the speed at which a story moves is very important to us. A story that crawls along is not likely to be interesting enough to hold our interest, while a story that whips past us at light speed is liable to confuse us too much to keep reading it. Many beginning writers struggle with pacing, but it’s easy to fine-tune your skills by thinking about your story as a collection of blocks of information.

Some of us have learned in school to think of a story in terms of introduction, exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement. While this formal division can be useful, there’s no reason you shouldn’t customize it to fit your story’s narrative. Try describing your story as you would to a stranger in ten sentences or less. Each of these sentences will represent a block of information that your reader needs to understand in order to grasp your overall narrative.

Once you have a good idea of what your reader needs to know, give yourself a strict budget of words you can use to get that information across. Sticking to this budget can be hard. You’ll soon discover which parts of the narrative you tend to gloss over and which parts you tend to overburden with language. Once you’ve recognized these weak spots, you can practice writing them until they come a little more naturally. This will help you even out your pacing, and the overall effort of sticking to your word budget will help you get a feel for pacing.

A short story will move at a different speed than a long novel, and many writers find they need a little practice when working on a story much longer or shorter than they’re accustomed to writing. Fortunately, working in sections and sticking to a word budget make it easy to improve this important part of story crafting.

Winning Hearts with Your Opening Chapters

Tug-of-war showing green teamWhen you send your work off to a literary agent or a publishing house, you will not be not alone. In fact, will more likely than not be competing with hundreds of similar authors for the attention of the readers who will evaluate your piece. These readers, like the audience you hope to one day reach, will largely judge your work on the quality of its opening chapters. If you hope to be published, you had better make sure that these opening chapters do their jobs flawlessly.

Grabbing your reader’s attention is the most important task that your opening chapter will accomplish. Different writers find that different techniques work best for gripping the reader right from the start. Some writers start with a piece of interesting dialogue, while others prefer to use powerful language to describe the scene and set the mood. Studying your favorite authors – or maybe some terrible authors that you read anyway because the opening was so good – can help you pick up some of the techniques that draw the reader into the story right from the beginning.

In addition to getting your readers interested, your story’s opening needs to get them oriented. The first few chapters shouldn’t give the reader a crystal ball into the plot ahead, but they should get the reader familiar with the logical premises of the plot. Make sure that your readers don’t leave the first three chapters without all of the information they need to make sense of your setting and your story.

If your story’s opening fails to grab your reader’s attention or get them adequately prepared for the narrative, then you risk losing your reader before you’ve even gotten to the good part. However, an interesting and informative opening chapter can get even the most jaded editor enthralled with your story.

The Call of the Overwhelming: American Naturalism and the Wild Setting

Abruzzo - lakeThe American Naturalists differed from the Romantics in the way they responded to a challenging setting. When you see snow-capped peaks and gaping chasms in Romantic literature, the characters are generally being offered at least an opportunity for redemption.

American Naturalism, despite its name, does not look so kindly on the natural world. The builders of this genre, such as Stephen Crane and Jack London, did not share the Romantic opinion that an encounter with the natural world would necessarily make a protagonist better. On the contrary, the natural world of the Naturalists is a threatening force. Although nature promises to change the protagonists of Naturalist stories, the change is almost always for the worse. Although the characters may start out as civilized people with little connection to nature, the natural world invites the characters to give in to their most basic instincts and urges as they become one with the setting.

We cannot read the work of the Naturalists without acknowledging the genre’s roots in the Industrial Revolution. At this point in history, civilization (even with all its ugly trappings) promised to save humanity from the nasty, brutish, and short lives promised by an agrarian lifestyle. Naturalist stories present us with the conflict between the civilized and the uncivilized; while the uncivilized world might tempt the characters with its mystery and vitality, it ultimately promises them a nasty end that can only be avoided through contact with civilization.

Today’s authors, unlike the American Naturalists, are not working in the shadow of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, literature these days is more focused on mourning the loss of the natural world to the civilized world. However, like all literary movements, Naturalism leaves us some handy narrative techniques that we can put to good use in contemporary prose. The conflict between humanity and nature provides us with a simple yet powerful framework for thrilling adventure narratives, and it gives us the spicy backdrop for romance narratives where one heroic character is “tamed” by the other’s affections.

There are as many opportunities for you to be influenced by the American Naturalists as there are opportunities to use natural settings in your writing. Although the conflict between humanity and nature need not be the driving force behind your narrative, it can always help characters learn new things about themselves and get the motivation to bring about a story-changing event. Allowing your setting to be part of your story’s conflict can bring depth to your setting and help you move your plot along without adding a multitude of extra characters.