Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Are you taking your reader to a place they want to go?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

On a whim, I downloaded Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland a couple weeks ago. I had never heard of it, but there were lots of reviews, I have an obsession with outlines (which is a bit strange since by nature I'm not an outliner), and I had an Amazon gift card.

As you might guess from the "million dollar" part, this book focused on writing a story that would make you some serious money. I was fascinated by the way he looked at different markets of story (movies, video games, books, and TV) and analyzed the common traits of stories that sold well.

There were lots of interesting tidbits from his research, but I found it particularly interesting that bestsellers tend to be "other worlds" stories. In this book, he suggested that your setting should be a place your reader wants to go. 



This idea had never occurred to me. I knew readers should like the characters they were going to spend time with, and that plot mattered. But the setting? Readers care?

I'm still turning this idea over, to be honest, and figuring out how deeply I agree.

If you think about the number one reason people say they love to read - to escape - it makes sense. If you're looking at two books and they both have a character that sounds interesting, a plot that sounds interesting, but one takes place in Paris and the other in Mucky, Oklahoma ... for most of us, Paris would win out. I would certainly rather escape to Paris than I would Oklahoma.

If you look at contemporary YA novels that have done well sales-wise, many of them are set in cool places that we would all want to go. The Gossip Girl books are in New York City, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants is set all over (as you might guess), The Princess Diaries is New York City (except for the movies, where it's inexplicably in San Francisco. Maybe Disney thought NYC is overdone?), Anna and The French Kiss is set in Paris, Lola and the Boy Next Door is in San Francisco.

Of course many successful contemporary YA authors don't set their stories in very interesting locations. Sarah Dessen's novels, for example, all take place in one of two rather nondescript towns in North Carolina.

But of course location isn't everything for a setting. Lots of books are set in New York City, but they have a very different feel. Why? Because the character's situation within the setting matters too.

Gossip Girl isn't just set in Manhattan. It's set on the Upper East side, where the wealthiest of the wealthy live. Harry Potter isn't just set in England. It's set in Hogwarts. Anna and the French Kiss doesn't just take place in Paris, but in a boarding school in Paris. Readers don't simply want to go to a place - they want to go with your character into their life situation.

But I do agree that it's wise for your setting and situation to be a place your reader would want to visit if they could. Not all of it, necessarily. The example David Farland gave in Million Dollar Outlines is Tolkein's Middle Earth. While much of the land is a place you would avoid, the Shire certainly isn't. Nor is where the elves live. Those are places the reader wants to go and spend time, and they're places the reader wants to protect.

Or with The Hunger Games and District 12. It's not exactly where I'd want to raise my family, but Collins provides the reader with a sanctuary - the land outside the fences where Katniss and Gale hunt.

Where's your story located, and what's the character's situation within that location? Have you provided a sanctuary for your reader? Do you think setting factors in to how many copies a book will sell?



31 comments:

  1. I definitely agree!! I'm always extra-intrigued by a book if it's setting is a little different from the norm. For instance, I just read "Insomnia" and it's set in a nondescript town. But "Contaminated" is set in a ruined city -- much cooler.
    I set one of my books in an Amazon-style-jungle. It was fun for me anyway! ;)

    So, I have a question. Do "typical" settings hurt sales? And do "unique" settings sometimes scare readers, because they don't connect with the places you've chosen? (Which is two questions, actually, but I'm a writer not a mathematician.)

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    1. I can't answer the first question, Cait, but I personally tend to *like* unique settings. Have you ever read Incarceron? Half the reason that book is so amazing (to me, at least) is the unique setting--definitely did not put me off as a reader.

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    2. Cait, I agree with Allison (and Incarceron is the example i would have chosen!) that a unique setting would more likely intrigue a potential reader than it would turn them away.

      What I don't know is if "typical" settings actually HURT sales. Like say a person is looking at The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet - I doubt it's the fact that it's not set in a cool place that makes them think, "No, I'm not going to buy this." It's probably something else.

      But I do think a really cool setting can be a tipping point in the decision to buy a contemporary novel. (Hence book lines like the Love Finds You series [Love Finds You in Annapolis, Maryland, etc.]) Although maybe that's not a great example since the publisher just closed their doors. But there are a lot of publishers who tie together series, especially romance series, with cities. So I guess they recognize the value of a setting that the reader is interested in visiting.

      Wow. Long-winded answer.

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    3. From Amo Libros:
      As far as setting hurting sales: I usually read to escape. I don't mind things like Star Trek taking real issues and turning them just enough for me to look at them in a slightly different angle and think on them a little bit more - and that veil of fiction helps distance me enough from the real problem that my brain can relax in the story even though it makes me think about the real issue afterwards - but I don't normally read things like contemporary. I mean, really, why do I want to read about rape, murder, drugs, eating disorders, etc. (no offense to anyone who writes contemporary, it can be very fun and helpful, it's just not where my own private tastes lie) when I could go someplace like Narnia or Middle Earth and deal with problems that have absolutely nothing to do with my own? My point: Normally, I would not have picked up a book like Ellie Sweet (public highschool is not a place I want to hang out). BUT I identified SO MUCH with Ellie, and found her predicaments and experiences SO interesting that I didn't care about the setting. Actually, it was kind of cool, seeing what my life might have been like had I gone to public highschhool. It was also comforting to know I'm not the only person like Ellie out there.
      So...setting might affect sales, but if the plot and characters are interesting and compelling enough, who cares?
      Sorry, that took longer than I expected ;)

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    4. Thanks Allison and Stephanie!! VERY helpful. I have read Incarceron and yep, I definitely found the setting mind blowing (seriously, the author had a good imagination!) I guess it depends on genre a bit then too? Weird and wonderful settings would appeal to readers who like epic books, while readers who only eat contemporary won't be so keen.??

      Thanks Amo Libros. ;) I'm a big fan of contemporary, so I don't mind the normality of everyday-life settings. But I LOVE epic as well! Best of both worlds! I just want to read all the books!! ;D

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    5. Incarceron has a fantastic setting!! You guys should read "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern.

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  2. I agree! The book I am working on now is set in Washington DC but the girl is the vice presidents daughter so its a whole new view of the city. Also a book I spent a while outlining for the past few weeks is set in a typical beach town. That's not really anything out of the ordinary, but I figure everyone wants to go to the beach!

    Kelly Ann

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    1. Your setting sounds awesome! I got to go to DC once, and I would *love* a book set there! Do you need a beta reader? ;)

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  3. I've never thought about it but now everything makes sense! I've reached total enlightenment XD
    As far as my own setting goes, I feel like flicking myself. What would possess me to set my story in south carolina?gahhh, I'm too far in to the writing process to fix it. Hopefully I made up for it by making her live in a firehouse. I'll have o think about this.

    Besides my own fail at this though, this is very useful information. Great post!

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    1. Leah, my published books thus far are set in Kansas City and a small town in California, so I'm in the same boat!

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    2. Lol. I'm right there with you, except mine is in North Carolina.

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    3. I'm soo glad it isn't just me. :)

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  4. I totally agree with this--it's like part of the reasons the readers love HP is because they, like Harry, consider Hogwarts to be home. (which is what you already said, but yeah.) I'm trying to think of the most recent example of this I've seen in a book... Probably the Argo II in the Percy Jackson spinoff. Yeah, they're on a dangerous quest filled with monsters, but they DO have a supercool ship to recede on when they AREN'T fighting monsters.
    The more I think about it, this definitely can be what sets the "amazing" books apart from the "good" books-description/setting. Like you said, given the choice, where will a reader want to go--Oklahoma, or Hawaii?
    So, yeah, all I did was agree with what you said Stephanie, but that's because it's SO true. :)

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    1. As for my book--it's set in a manor when my characters are being held as slaves--but they do have a place of refuge, a supercool workshop. I'm not totally happy with the setting now--it's not living up to it's potential--but I'll fix it in revisions. (Which I am excited for, only a week and a half left and I'll finish my first draft!!)

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  5. One of my favorite books is Lorna Doone. Doone valley is so dangerous, yet so beautiful. And the Ridd farm felt like home.

    My own books need more description but I know I love escaping to their settings. Selkin is so varied and rugged with it's Exmoor like hills and Arabian deserts. I have Biscann the city of plague and slavery and discrimination, but I also have The Mountains, a refuge. Yeah I really need to describe more.

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  6. Oh goodness. My setting is pretty typical. Not a small town, exactly, but not a big city, either. :/

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    1. Don't freak out, Ashley! My books have been the same way. This is a new concept for me too :)

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    2. Whew. I feel better, now. :)

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  7. Mine is set in space, on a starship- which is a place that I'd love to go. Good setting?

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      YES!!!
      (in my own opinion, anyway. Starships are awesome)

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  8. Haha. I've finished writing three novels set in modern times... and after reading this blog post, I just realized all three are set in my home city. It's not a particularly exciting place, but I know it better than anywhere else. Wouldn't it take a lot of research to write about a place you've never been?

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  9. I want to live in the Shire! My dream house is a hobbit-hole. ...is that weird?
    That reminds me- my book is set in a place a tad bit like Middle-Earth. I don't know about anyone else, but that is definitely a place I'd want to live in.

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  10. This is actually a really cool thing to think about. For setting I always stick with what I know. Since I don't travel a lot, that's extremely limited. Just now, though, I've realized that all the cities in my books (they're all unnamed) seem to be where I live. Sure, the schools have different names and the people are different, but they generally are the same. I've also discovered that I do have a sanctuary, although it wasn't just a place...it was a time and a place. I think that the situation you have the haven in also plays a part in it.
    Awesome post!!!

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  11. Maybe that's why I have so much fun creating my own worlds. I'm secretly making a place I want to go to!

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  12. I agree, so much I don't know what else to say, a simple plot can come alive with an exotic setting. You can probably completely change a book by changing the setting as well. Yet, outside of the fact that its high school I haven't solidified my setting,
    It's so simple to admire others settings but why can't I figure them out myself.

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    1. And I've always wondered why the Princess Diaries setting was switched, they also made the grandmother more likable.

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    2. Fewer sidecars in the movie too ;)

      I think the books are a lot edgier, which I find interesting because often it goes the other way.

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  13. I absolutely agree that story-world is HUGE.In great books, I feel like the setting has an essence. For me, it seems like minor characters and places mentioned also are a part of the story-world. I wasn't a fan of realistic fiction until I read some of (soon to be ALL of) Sarah Dessen's books because even though the setting is in the same "world" as ours, lots of little add up to give each book a really strong essence. In This Lullaby, The Bendo, The Yellow House, Zip-Quik... there are loads of locations and pet names and places that make it feel special, and... like a place I'd want to go!

    Sorry for going off on a tangent there... To me, story-world is an equal pillar with characters and plot.

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  14. This is so true! And oftentimes for me, it's not only the physical setting of the story, but the 'atmosphere' and feeling all through the book. Several of my favorite book settings are in fantasies: like Morgenstern's "Night Circus." But then other favorites are in real life places like "Anne of Green Gables" in P.E.I. :)

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