Kyle A. Massa

Fantasy Author, Blogger, and Staunch Supporter of the Oxford Comma

Why the “This Meets That” Pitch Doesn’t Work

“It’s Star Wars meets Weekend at Bernie’s.”

“It’s Birdman meets Serial.”

“It’s Dashiell Hammett meets Kelly Link.”

Have you seen this style of pitch before? I have. I call it the “this meets that” pitch. I’m sick of it, and today I’d like to tell you why. Okay, here goes. I have a feeling this is going to be a controversial post…

“This Meets That” is Simplistic

Every work of art is unique, and yours is no exception. You’ve worked hard on it. You’ve rearranged, refined, iterated, and improved your story, likely over the course of months (or even years). The “this meets that” pitch oversimplifies all your hard work.

To put it another way, imagine someone pitched the sport of volleyball as “basketball meets tennis.” Not a bad comparison; Spiking a volleyball is similar to blocking a shot in basketball, and both volleyball and tennis involve hitting a ball over a net. But volleyball is about way more than spiking and a net. “This meets that” omits the subtleties that make the sport its own. It does the same to your story.

“This Meets That” is Risky

You know that picture of a young woman and an old woman combined? At first, you might only see one of the two. Yet when someone points out the other figure, you’ll likely notice it every time you see the picture. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.

The same principle applies to your story. When you use “this meets that,” readers will constantly conflate your work with two others. What if your readers detest the stories you mentioned? What if your readers never heard of them? What if they feel your story doesn’t live up to the comparison? Describing your work in terms of others exposes it to unnecessary risk. And pitching a story should not be like rolling a dice.

“This Meets That” Doesn’t Age Well

At the risk of sounding like an old dude, storytelling is way different than it was back in my day. Modern books, movies, and TV shows spawn at an incredible rate. This hyper-production places greater importance on the new and the current. In 2008, “The Hunger Games meets Paper Towns might’ve made for a decent pitch. But 10 years later, that same description won’t carry the meaning it once did.

Similarly, if I pitched “Stranger Things meets A Quiet Place” today, that might get readers’ attention. But let’s say someone comes across that same pitch a few years from now. Stranger Things might be off the air and A Quiet Place might only exist on select streaming services. In other words, your “this meets that pitch” might become meaningless sooner than you think.

In Conclusion

The Mona Lisa is so much more than “paint meets canvas.” Likewise, our works are more than amalgams of others. Instead of focusing on how our stories are similar to previous stories, I believe we should highlight what makes them different. That, in my opinion, is the key to a great pitch.


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction.



The Infinity Draft: 3 Questions That Can Help End the Endless

There are novels in the world which do not end. This is not necessarily as cool as it sounds.

I’m talking about that novel you’ve been working on for five (or more) years. The one you enjoy for 50 pages, enjoy a little less for the next 50, then ultimately start over from the beginning. It’s the novel you rejigger again and again, endlessly. In honor of the new Avengers movie, I’m calling it the Infinity Draft. Plus it sounds cool.

I’m here to tell you that the Infinity Draft need not take up all your writing time. These three questions might help you finally put your project to rest.

1. Will Restarting Really Make It Better?

Before remodeling a kitchen, interior designers must seriously consider whether or not the project will actually improve the space. Likewise, as writers, we must only start over if we’re completely convinced doing so will make our book better. (Okay, I admit the kitchen metaphor breaks down somewhat when we’re talking about HGTV or the like. Whatever, I’m keeping it.)

Before rebooting your Infinity Draft, take a serious moment to consider why you’re doing it. Starting from scratch is serious stuff; it means a lot of added hours tacked onto what you’ve already done. Instead, I recommend doing your best to finish your Infinity Draft, even if you feel like it’s not working. Give yourself a few extra days to rediscover that passion you had for the project when you first imagined it.

2. What’s Not Working Here?

My Infinity Draft was an epic fantasy novel I started in high school. At first it was super fun, but the further I got into the story, the less I knew what to do. So I started over. Again, everything was going great…until I got lost in the plot. When I didn’t know how to proceed, I started over again. And again. And again.

When I look back on it, the book itself wasn’t the issue—it was my approach. I’d start with a handful of characters and a vague idea for an opening scene, then I’d write myself into a corner. I needed direction. Though I’m not really an architect (a writer who works strictly off an outline), I need to know where my story’s taking me. Otherwise, it goes nowhere.

This might be the cause of your Infinity Draft. Does your manuscript need more structure? Do you know your characters well enough to write an entire book about them? You might find that the solution isn’t just starting over completely. You might be better served developing an outline or focusing on your structure.

3. Are You Meant to Wait on This Story?

It’s difficult to admit, but it’s certainly a possibility. Your Infinity Draft might be plaguing you because it’s just not the right story for you at this point in your life.

Stephen King, for instance, conceived of the idea for 11/22/63 way back in the 70s. Yet the novel wasn’t published until 2011. That’s because he felt that as a young writer, he simply wasn’t equipped to write such an ambitious work. He shelved the idea for decades until he felt he was finally ready to come back to it.

Again, this is a really hard decision to make for any writer, but sometimes it’s the right one. Imagine if King just tried to write 11/22/63 over and over again. He may never have written Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, or his other classics.

If you do indeed decide to shelve your novel, remind yourself that this isn’t goodbye. It’s just see you later, Infinity Draft.

In Conclusion

I hope these thoughts help you sort out your Infinity Draft. They can be a pain in the ol’ keister sometimes, but I do hope these thoughts help. Turn those Infinity Drafts into finished works of art!


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction.



Story Ideas: Where Do They Come From and Where Can We Find More?

Lightbulb

It’s never this easy.

I’ve heard it said that great ideas are easy to come by—it’s the writing that’s the hard part. I don’t buy it!

On the contrary, I think when you start with a great idea, the writing blossoms from there. So the question is, how do we come by those great ideas?

Man, I wish I knew. I’m no more of an idea factory than anyone else. What I can say is, I’m always trying new methods. Some work, some don’t, but here are a few of my favorite idea generators.

Keep a Notebook

My mom encouraged me to do this, and I’m glad she did. Writer or not, everyone has a hundred ideas every day—it’s just that we remember few of them. That’s where the notebook comes in.

This thing should be the Robin to your Batman, so make sure it’s small enough to fit in your pocket. Whenever you have an idea, any idea, jot it down. It’s perfect for those thoughts that just need to gestate a bit, or perhaps an overheard conversation that would make a great scene of dialogue, or maybe a solution to that complex conflict between your central characters.

If you’re interested, Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook explores this topic with much more eloquence than I can. Check it out!

Focus on the Fun Ideas

This one seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of writers (including myself) seem to forget it.

I remember working on a manuscript for far longer than I should have, forcing my way through and groaning whenever it was time to write. Truth was, the initial idea turned out to be far more interesting than the piece itself.

Two months in, I realized I wasn’t having fun anymore. So I put the manuscript away, all 40,000 words of it.

I didn’t throw it away (more on that later), but I didn’t force it, either. Not every piece will be like eating ice cream, but fun should be an essential part of your writing process. After all, if you don’t have fun writing a piece, no one’s going to have fun reading it.

Don’t Abandon Anything

Even if you think you’ve just written the literary equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Spacekeep it! Every idea is like a seed. Some never grow. Some grow into shrubs and die in their first winter. But some flourish and grow tall. Pretty soon, you’ll have yourself one mighty fine-looking tree.

George R.R. Martin encourages young writers to never throw away anything, and here’s a good example why. In his introduction for Dreamsongs, Volume IMartin describes one of his first forays into the epic fantasy genre. (Remember—this was a long time before A Song of Ice and Fire.)

“Dark Gods of Kor-Yuban” I called it, and yes, my version of Mordor sounds like a brand of coffee. My heroes were the usual pair of mismatched adventurers, the melancholy exile prince R’hllor of Raugg and his boisterous, swaggering companion, Argilac the Arrogant.

And later…

In the sequel, my exile prince finds himself in the Dothrak Empire, where he joins Barron of the Bloody Blade to fight the winged demons who slew his grandsire, King Barristan the Bold.

If you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire, then you probably recognize the names R’hllor, Argilac the Arrogant, Barristan the Bold, and the Dothrak Empire. All those names reappear in his series!

So what does it take to make a great story idea? It takes hard work, deep thought, and perseverance. Truth is, ideas don’t always come to us—sometimes, we need to go find them.


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

Enter Late, Leave Early

No, the title of this post is not a reference to party etiquette. Rather, it’s a writing principle you might’ve heard before. When composing a scene, it’s often best to begin that scene as late as possible, then end it as early as possible.

Want to bring this concept to your own writing? Here are some thoughts on how to do it.

Entering Late

Dialogue should sound like real people talking, but only to a certain extent. One of my professors described good dialogue as, “The way people would talk if they had time to think of the perfect words.” This makes perfect sense to me. Because if our dialgoue sounds exactly like everyday speech, we’re going to get an annoyingly high percentage of “ums,” “uhs,” and “you knows.”

Now how does entering late/leaving early apply to writing fiction? Well, just think of all the pleasantries we exchange at the beginning and end of most conversations. They’re perfectly acceptable in a casual chat—less so in fiction. For example…

“Hey Marcel, how you doing?”

“Craig, what’s up, man? I’m doing alright. Yourself?”

“Good man, good. Just watching some X-Files. You busy right now?”

“I can talk for a second. What’s up?”

“Well, I uh, I heard the bad news. That’s tough man. People gotta stay off their cell phones when they drive.”

There. We finally arrived at the subject of Marcel and Craig’s discussion: a car accident. Problem is, we entered this conversation too late; the first four lines of dialogue really don’t do anything relevant (although one has to wonder what X-Files episode Craig is watching).

Here’s what it might look like if we start the conversation a bit later:

“Hello?”

“Tell me it isn’t totaled.”

“Hey Craig. Haven’t heard from the auto shop yet. Fingers crossed.”

Since we entered the scene later, we’re thrown right into the action. No messing around with inane chatter at the beginning. This leads to better scenes, better dialogue, and better stories.

Leaving Early

When you reach the end of an article, do you skip over the conclusion? Writing a scene is no different. Once you’ve made your point, people are less interested in anything that comes after. As writers, we should strive to end our scenes before that happens. Here’s another example using the characters from the previous scene:

“I’m just lucky to be alive.”

“Totally Marcel, totally. It was like a super bad wreck. But hey, you’re here now, and that’s what matters.”

“You said it, man.”

“Well, I better get going. The smoking dude just showed up.”

“Oh snap. Alright, later Craig.”

“See ya, Marcel.”

Though I haven’t written the whole scene, let’s presume Marcel and Craig have been discussing the accident. When we leave conversations too late, characters tend to restate what’s been said before. It’s super boring. This scene probably should’ve ended after that first sentence.

And another thing: I mentioned this in a previous post about line breaks, but I think it deserves repeating here. Statements are most profound when they come before a break. So the final sentence before your scene ends should be a good one. Which sounds better to you: “I’m just lucky to be alive,” or “See ya, Marcel”? The answer’s pretty clear.

Conclusion

In an effort to follow my own advice, I’m going to keep things short. Enter late, leave early. You’ll love the results.


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

Originality is Overrated

There, I said it. This is a thought I’ve had for a while now, though it’s been difficult to find the right words to express it. I hope I’ve found them here.

As writers, the works of other writers are equal parts inspiration and limitation. Stephen King might inspire you to become a horror writer, yet you might avoid writing a novel set in a haunted hotel. That would be too much like The Shining, right? It wouldn’t be original.

You know what? Screw originality. Write what you want!

So many writers decide not to pursue ideas simply because they believe it’s already been done. But so what? If your idea’s been done before, do it differently. Do it better. Do it with that personal touch only you can provide.

I’ll give you an example. One of my best friends told me he always had this idea for a story. You know the theory that humans only use a small percentage of their brain power? In my friend’s story, he imagined a character who takes experimental drugs which grant him access to the rest of his brain. This character develops hyper intelligence and extrasensory perception.

However, my friend told me he’d never write this story. Why? Because of the film LimitlessIf you haven’t seen it, it’s almost exactly the same idea my friend had.

Hearing this really bummed me out. My friend was so excited about this story, yet the film killed his dream of writing it. I’m sure you’ve observed (or even personally experienced) a similar phenomenon.

Want my opinion (even though it’s not entirely original)? A similar existing work should never, ever stop you from working on a great idea.

The film Limitless, by the way, is based on a novel called The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn. But did you know that Ted Chiang published a similar story a decade earlier entitled UnderstandHis was also about a normal guy who took a drug that granted supernatural intelligence. And if we go back even further to 1959, we’ll find Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernonyet another story about a scientifically sharpened intellect.

Though the methods and general mechanics might vary from story to story, each bears a core similarity to the others. I don’t necessarily agree with those who claim there are no original ideas. I just think writers can always find ways to take existing ideas and make them their own.

We see this all the time in fiction. People say dragons are overdone in fantasy, yet George R.R. Martin writes A Song of Ice and Fire and suddenly they’re resurrected. People say you can’t do anything original with zombies anymore, and then The Girl with All the Gifts becomes a hit.

Don’t let an existing story preclude you from writing something amazing. If your idea is similar to another, make it your own. Put your personal spin on it. Most important of all, write it.

Originality is overrated. But individual creativity—now that’s something to strive for.


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

The Anatomy of a Line Break

Writers can do a lot with a line break.


Whether it looks like the one above or the one below…

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…the line break is a fantastic tool for writers. I’ll admit, I think I have more fondness for it than the average person does. Truth be told, I might use it too much. But no matter—today, I’d like to share my love of the line break with you. Let’s get started.

Line Breaks Suggest A Narrative Shift

In my fiction, some of my weakest writing comes when I’m trying to get my characters from one setting to another. I often find myself over-describing their form of transit, or what they saw during their journey, however brief. It’s rarely important to the story I’m trying to tell, and often ends up feeling pretty boring.

That’s why I love the line break. It’s an elegant way to suggest this idea to the reader: “Hey reader. We’ve shifted settings.” It cuts down on extraneous words and boring scenes. If a transition scene is a long, windy road through the mountains, think of a line break as a shortcut.

In addition, line breaks are an excellent way to signal point of view shifts, particularly within a chapter of a novel. There’s no better way to write from multiple characters’ points of view without cutting your chapters short.

Line Breaks Suggest a Passage of Time

When jumping from one scene to the next, adding a line break is an excellent way to show that there’s been a slight passage of time since the last event. Just make sure it’s slight.

Are you jumping ahead a few minutes into the next scene? By all means, use a line break. Are you jumping ten years into the future? You probably need something a bit more obvious.

In other words, line breaks are excellent for signaling relatively brief shifts into the future. Less so when we’re talking dramatic leaps forward.

Line Breaks Provide Heavier Meaning to Parting Words

Let’s say you’ve got a profound piece of dialogue floating around in your head. Where should you place it for the optimal impact? I’d suggest just before a line break.

Words often gain greater emphasis when they come at the conclusion of a paragraph, scene, or chapter. Recency plays a huge part in memory, so it makes sense that the last thing we read would be the most memorable.

I hope you now share my love of the line break. Try using it in your writing!


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

Should You Lie to Your Fellow Writers?

Imagine this. You just read a fellow writer’s work. Maybe this is a friend, a member of your writer’s group, a classmate. Whoever it is, you read their writing with the objective of giving them honest feedback.

One problem: you hated the piece you just read.

Okay, I know Mom always said hate is a strong word. But this is going to happen. Even if your fellow writers are very talented, you’re unlikely to enjoy their each and every work. Our preferences and interests don’t always line up with everyone else’s. At any rate, you’ve just read a piece you didn’t particularly care for. And now you’ve got to give feedback on it.

Now what? Should you tell your fellow writer the truth? That you think what they wrote just wasn’t very good? Or worse, that you thought it was plain bad?

You will almost certainly have these thoughts about other people’s writing. When you do, I strongly believe you should simply lie to your fellow writers.

As we all know, writing is a pain in the ass. It takes years to get good at, and even then there’s always something left to improve upon. It’s a process of drafts, revisions, meticulous editing, feedback collection, then repetition. Writing is hard. It requires a constant stream of dedication and positivity.

So when a reader reviews a written work in a preliminary stage and tells the author they hated it, such negative feedback can destroy the author’s confidence. It’s these kinds of comments that make writers quit on their projects, completely restructure their work, or say to themselves, “I guess I’ll never be a very good author.” There is, after all, such a thing as being too honest.

The basic gist: If our objective is to help a fellow writer get better at writing, sometimes it’s necessary to lie.

I’m not advocating an “It’s perfect!” approach, whereby authors simply pat each other on the back at every turn, pretending everything’s amazing and every page is publishable. This kind of attitude won’t help anyone achieve their potential. Rather, I’m advocating a balanced approach. If you can’t find anything you like about a particular piece, make something up. There are glimmers of success to be found in all writing, no matter how much we dislike it.

Also, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about writing in its preliminary stages here, not finished writing. If you read a published book and hate it, you’re certainly entitled to share your opinion. But a published book is finished, and therefore open to any kind of feedback, negative or otherwise. (Just try to be respectful.)

On the other hand, for unfinished manuscripts and the people working on them, one-star ratings are useless. In the nascent stages of development, writers need equal amounts of praise and constructive criticism. It helps us stay motivated and finish projects.

Yes, all comments on a work in progress should be constructive in nature. Simply saying, “I didn’t like it” does nothing to help a writer improve their work. The best readers offer solutions rather than only point out problems.

For example, imagine you just read a really bad manuscript. Here’s an example of some honest, yet constructive feedback you might provide:

I think this piece has a lot of potential. One place where I think you could concentrate additional time is on your protagonist. I don’t dislike her, but I don’t really like her, either. In this draft, she’s just sort of there. I have a very hard time connecting with her, I think because I don’t know enough about her. If you provide additional details into her past which explain why she behaves the way she does, I think it might be easier to identify with her.

Here we’ve started on a positive: “I think this piece has a lot of potential.” We’re acknowledging that the piece isn’t quite there yet, but that it can get there with the proper improvements. It’s also useful to start on a positive note because we writers are often sensitive folk. We want people to like our writing!

Next, we delve into specifics rather than generalities. Even if the entire piece really is a prolonged snore, lie to the author. Get specific about the boringness. Here we’ve highlighted an important element: the main character. Notice that we didn’t just write, “I don’t like her.” We’re communicating exactly what we think isn’t working. In our opinion, we don’t know enough about her. And then, finally, we offer a solution to the specific problem we’ve identified.

This is where we should be totally honest. Remember, the primary reason an author asks you to read their work is so they can make it better. Your general opinions on the quality of the work are often secondary. Because the truth is, first drafts are always bad. Writers know this. They just want to make them better.

So if a writer you know asks for feedback on a draft and you simply hate that draft, lie to them. Find something, anything you think they did right. Identify specific points where they can improve, rather than making sweeping, and ultimately unhelpful, negative statements.

Think of it as a fib if you have to. It’ll help your fellow writers very much.


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

3 Signs Your Novel Has Too Many POV Characters

Writing a novel from multiple points of view is tempting. It’s especially tempting, I find, for those writing fantasy. George R.R. Martin does it. Why can’t we?

Well, what works for Mr. Martin won’t necessarily work for us. And truth be told, what works for Mr. Martin doesn’t always actually work for Mr. Martin, if you know what I mean. Because even the most diehard Song of Ice and Fire fans will admit that the series might have too many POVs.

Let’s back up a moment. A point of view character is pretty much what it sounds like—the character whose thoughts and feelings are described to us. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has one point of view character: Nick Carraway. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, on the other hand, has multiple point of view characters, indicated by the character name at the beginning of the chapter.

To be fair, you know your novel best. Maybe you really do need ten or twenty POV characters. But if you fear you’ve got too many, these are three telltale signs.

Your POV Characters Have “Check In” Chapters

When you read certain books, do you ever get the sense that we’re returning to a POV character not for any story reason, but just to remind you they’re still alive? I call these check in chapters.

Avoid them. They slow your story and add unnecessary chunkiness to your page count. Plus, nothing bothers readers more than pointless tangents. Readers give their time to our stories. We shouldn’t waste it!

I’ve certainly had check in chapters infect my manuscripts. For example, I had five POV characters in one story, each with a complete and satisfying character arc. Yet for my fifth POV character, a multi-talented scoundrel by the name of Trast, his story resolved itself about a hundred pages sooner than expected. The rest of his chapters seemed to say the same thing: “Remember Trast? He’s still here.” Clearly, I had too many POVs. Poor Trast was demoted to an auxiliary character in the next draft.

Your Readers Skip POVs

One of the most fun (and sometimes frustrating) aspects of writing is this: Your conception of your story never quite aligns with the finished product. When you brainstorm, you might guess that you need that additional POV. But once you start writing, you might find those extra chapters don’t add much to your story.

Though some characters might not attain POV status, you needn’t necessarily cut them entirely. You might work them into other spots or just lessen their role in the story. Just because a character isn’t a POV doesn’t mean they’re not important. We never get Dumbledore’s perspective in Harry Potter, yet he’s undeniably vital to the story.

You’ve Added POVs Only to Show More of Your World

Adding POV characters just to show new settings is like using the Death Star to destroy an ant hill. That is, there are better ways to accomplish the same goal.

Books are often better when they leave some things unsaid. Exploring every crevice of a world just for the sake of exploration produces aimless chapters. Settings and characters should serve the story whenever possible. If they don’t, they’re likely unnecessary.

If you’ve got essential action going on “offscreen,” it’s often better to devise an alternate way to show it. Can another POV character reach that other region so they experience the event first-hand? If not, can you suggest the action without showing it? Maybe a courier relays the action to your main character.

I hope these suggestions prove useful to you. If you’ve got too many POV characters, don’t worry! You’re creative. I know you’ll think of a better solution.


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

Are You Forgetting Your Setting?

I’d like to share a brief scene with you. Here goes:

“Life,” said Silver, “is a collection of unrealized dreams.”

Tia groaned. “Well that’s uplifting.”

“My profound apologies.”

That was something Tia noticed about Silver in the short time she’d known him—he had his own way of saying everything. “Many pardons,” instead of “excuse me.” “Energetically insufficient” instead of “tired.” “Inventively predisposed” instead of “creative.” Or, in this case, “my profound apologies” instead of “sorry.” He never uttered the words with irony, either. It was just how he spoke.

“Silver,” she said. “People enjoy your movies. So maybe you don’t need to care what critics and reviewers and whoever say. Right?”

“Critics and reviewers are gravity. I am but a rock bound to Earth.”

It took a great deal of Tia’s willpower not to scream. “Silver. I know we haven’t known each other long. But this depressive artist thing. It’s a little much.”

I think this is a decent start to a story. We’ve got two fairly well-developed characters with distinct voices. We’ve got hints of conflict. We’ve even got the seeds of a story emerging.

So sure, it’s a fine start. But where’s the setting?

Remember the scene in The Matrix when they’re standing in a totally white space? That’s basically what I have here. No explanation of where we are, no details about the area within which these characters speak. Just Tia, Silver, and their dialogue. I’ve done it before, and I’ve read other manuscripts with the same issue.

As writers, sometimes we place so much focus on character and plot that we forget about setting. Big mistake. Setting is an essential element of any great story. To paraphrase a professor of mine, settings should be written such that one’s story cannot exist in any other surrounding.

So how do we make sure we don’t forget our setting? Here are some thoughts.

Incorporate Your Setting Into the Action

This method works wonders. Take our introductory scene, for instance. Let’s see what happens when we insert the setting into the conversation.

“Life,” said Silver, “is a collection of unrealized dreams.”

Tia groaned. “Well that’s uplifting.”

They huddled in a room too small for two people, a single flickering bulb serving as their only source of light. The smell of dust and some chemical aroma (Silver’s cologne, perhaps?) seemed to crowed the space further. Tia wasn’t sure how long she could stand it.

I like this version better already. As readers, we can visualize the conversation now that we’ve filled in the surroundings. Additionally, the setting description adds context to the scene: Tia is uncomfortable, Silver wears Axe body spray.

Draw from Personal Experience

This principle works for most aspects of writing, but it’s especially useful for writing settings. That’s because so much of a setting is based on sensory detail, so it oftentimes helps to write about a place that you’ve been before.

Take the ocean, for instance. You might describe the smell of it, the feel of the sand between your toes, the sound of the gulls overhead. Make sure your audience feels like they can visualize and imagine themselves within the space.

If you’re writing alternate-world fantasy, this task becomes a bit trickier. Still, you can do it. Even if your story takes place in a world you’ve never visited and never will, you can still draw on personal experience. Think back to the time you went hiking through the mountains, took a trip to Death Valley, or went cave diving. These experiences can inform your settings, even those of an alternate world.

Imagine Your Setting as a Character

This is my personal favorite method of building a good setting. Imagine all the care and thought you put into your characters. Now apply those same principles toward your setting.

For example, your setting, just like your characters, has little quirks and oddities that no other setting has. Use those. A good setting, like good characters, help to progress the story further.

Give these tips a try and see what happens. And make sure not to forget that setting!


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

The Gunslinger and Character Backstory

The Gunslinger

When writing characters, where do you start? Maybe a name, or a physical description, or some basic personality traits. Before long you’ll probably wonder how your character got the way he or she is now. Which is why it’s important for the story to start before it actually starts, if you get my meaning. That means character backstory.

Take, for example, Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. He’s a sombre, soft-spoken, mysterious type, and you probably would be too if you had a childhood like his—Roland’s mom was sleeping with his dad’s top advisor, for god’s sake. In fact, Roland’s past is so important to his present that we need to see it up close and personal. That means backstory.

But offering details on a character’s background is tricky. Constant flashbacks interrupt the flow of a progressing story, and dropping little details into the narrative can sometimes come across as expository. For example, Character A says, “Remember when you had more fingers?” Character B frowns and says, “Sure. I’ll never look at blenders the same way again.”

Of course these characters remember that moment. In fact, the only thing a writer does by including this exchange is tell reader exactly what’s going on. Which is about as subtle as a slap to the face.

King, however, handles the backstory of The Gunslinger perfectly. It’s a novel that’s very much about the past, a novel where each character is shaped and motivated by events which happened long before. These events are so important, in fact, that it won’t suffice to reference them through dialogue or brief description. So here’s what King does, and does very well: He references characters we’ve never met before, then explains who those characters are in subsequent flashbacks.

For example, a boy from New York City named Jake Chambers suddenly appears in the Roland’s world without explanation. Jake tells Roland that he can’t remember anything about how he got there, so we’re left to wonder. That, however, would be quite the fraying loose end. So King gives us a brief flashback.

Fortunately, it’s not just a flashback for the sake of a flashback. We learn two very important details from it: One, that Jake died before coming to the gunslinger’s world, and that is perhaps why he’s there. And two, that Jake was somehow sent there by the man in black, who is the gunslinger’s arch nemesis (excuse the lack of actual names—it’s all about the mystery, baby).

I’m drawn to this aspect of King’s novel because I struggle a lot with character backstory in my writing. It’s hard to know what to give and when to give it, but it’s a skill that can be developed through practice and careful study of the pros.


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

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