Igniting The Fictional Dream: Setting And The Senses | Ryan Matthews | Skillshare

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Igniting The Fictional Dream: Setting And The Senses

teacher avatar Ryan Matthews, Writer & Editor

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

13 Lessons (18m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Writing A New World

    • 3. Writing At Will And On Command

    • 4. Importance Of Place

    • 5. Reading - Borderland By M.F.K. Fisher

    • 6. Picking A Time, Place, And Milieu

    • 7. The Fictional Dream

    • 8. Reading - A Distant Episode By Paul Bowles

    • 9. Igniting The Fictional Dream

    • 10. Writing Your Setting

    • 11. Reading - Under The Volcano By Malcolm Lowry

    • 12. Revising Your Draft

    • 13. Final Thoughts On Setting

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About This Class

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking…Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.
—Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin

Character—check. Plot—yep. Conflict—of course! Setting?

Setting—it’s an underappreciated element of narrative that has a profound impact on plot and character. Actions have vastly different effects depending on the place, time, and milieu.

In this high-energy class we’ll discuss the importance of setting on kick starting what John Gardner describes as the “fictional dream”—that hypnosis readers know so well when they leave the comfort of their chair to embark on a fictional journey. We’ll look at the value of setting a scene to build a stage and situate characters, making it possible for the reader to concretely visualize drama.

We’ll also work on writing “at will and on command”—an idea that will help overcome any sense of writer's block or lack of inspiration.

All students are encouraged to share their scenes from the writing prompt: To transport a reader to a place you’ve never been before!

This is a class for writers of all levels who are looking to make their fiction more vivid and their stories sing with detail. And, by making writing and rewriting a habit, we will gain mastery and authority over our work—the power to give a narrative life beyond the page.

Meet Your Teacher

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Ryan Matthews

Writer & Editor


Ryan D. Matthews is a writer and editor originally from Washington State and now based in Brooklyn, New York.

His writing can be found in the Huffington Post, the Brooklyn Rail, and the Tottenville Review and he is at work on a novel for which he has received fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, the Jentel Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and Can Serrat International Art Center. He is a Voting Member of the National Book Critics Circle.

He's taught creative writing through Duke University's OLLI Program, Education Unlimited, and the Monterey Bay Writers Studio.

You can find him at ryandmatthews.com and follow him on Twitter @RyDMatthews.

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1. Introduction: Welcome, everybody. My name is Ryan Mathews, and this is igniting the fictional dream setting in the senses. E. I am a fiction writer. I've written for the Huffington Post, the Brooklyn rail. I've received fellowships from the Gentle Foundation and the Ragsdale Foundation, and today we're gonna talk about setting. Setting is a really underappreciated aspect of storytelling. It grounds us. It's it's the sense details that really start the fictional dream, the little movie that plays in our head that takes you from laying on the couch with a great book into Drastic Park or the 18 seventies. It's it's it's really what makes a scene a scene. 2. Writing A New World: So what is setting and what isn't setting setting is vitally important not only to our characters and our stories, but also to ourselves. It's where we were born. It's Did we move around a lot as a kid? Did we never leave our hometown? Today? We're going to write a 500 word draft. We're going to transport our reader fully and convincingly to a place that we've never been before. And we have a really fun exercise. We're gonna get lost somewhere in the world and we're gonna use description to find our way . We're gonna talk about setting our senses and setting a scene. 3. Writing At Will And On Command: all right. Before we even get started, I want to talk a little bit about writing at will and on command. This is just to lay out a few guidelines and ground rules for us. Ah, I want to before we even do that, give you folks permission to write whatever you need. Teoh. We need to lower our expectations of little bit sometimes, as writers, we want to write the best sentence we can the first time. And that's just not always possible. And so we really need to. I just feel free to write whatever, whatever we need. Teoh. At first I also want to talk a little bit about inspiration and the muse and how we would be beholden to something that we're not in control of and that is counterproductive for our writing. So how do we How do we get better at writing? How do we own our own time? We make writing habit as well. If we were learning an instrument, the piano say we would dedicate the time we would practice as much as we possibly could. We would run scales and we would work on one key concept at a time, like we're doing today with setting, so we need to lower our expectations. We need to make writing habit and we need to be our own news. 4. Importance Of Place: So you folks know what setting is setting is time place, and it's something harder to define its culture or milieu. So if we think about location, it's It's the physical place where something is set. Think about The Great Gatsby. That's Ah, if if Gatsby is not in New York, is he so great if he's in Indiana? I don't know. Think about time. Ah, story is much different. If its historical and it's the 19 thirties versus 2055 then then we're into sci fi. That's a totally different genre. Think about Moby Dick. If that's a contemporary story, there aren't that many whales left. Also, the technology has changed. And third, there's really the harder to define the more abstract term, which is the culture and milieu, which is really the social rules that define character behavior. That's think of Faulkner's Mississippi much different for a black character versus a white character. It's it's those rules. It's kind of the air between characters, so it's what dictates character behavior that's not time in place. So just to recap, it's time, place and culture 5. Reading - Borderland By M.F.K. Fisher: So now we're gonna read something fun, just a little bit of inspiration for our setting. This is a piece by M. F. K. Fisher. It's called Borderland from her book Serve It Forth and M. F. K. Fisher is known primarily as a food writer. She's kind of the gold standard for food writers, at least in America, and she was also a poet. She's a she's a great writer, and so now we're just gonna take a few minutes, read the piece and come right back. So what did you folks think of that piece? Do you each have a secret delight? Think about the descriptions that Fisher uses those those sense descriptions. Think about site. Think about the soldiers pouring past. Think about smell. Can you smell the chocolate as it turns that hard, bitter chocolate? Can you taste those plump, warm tangerines? Think about all of those details and how they accrue, and we want to do that same thing with our setting. We want to engage the reader senses. We want to hypnotize them with those details 6. Picking A Time, Place, And Milieu: All right, Now it's time for some hard decisions. We're gonna pick our place. This is we're gonna decide on our setting. This is a place we've always been curious about. Just not luxury beach resort. This is somewhere that's maybe unsettling that we've always thought about, but we've never been to. I've been trying to pick my place a week, and I haven't really come up with anything. So we're gonna do a little exercise with a program called Geo Guesser. It puts you somewhere in the world. You're lost. You have to use your powers of description to find your way. All right, folks. Now we're gonna do just a little exercise to get us in the mood and to think about setting and help us decide on our place. We're gonna play a little game called Geo Gesser. It's ah, it's a Web based geographic discovery game. It's just a little browser game. It's geo guesser within are not an e r a t end. Let's explore the world. Yes, please. All right, so here we are. We are in a parking lot. Look at the sky. That's fantastic. All this others look, you know, textured it is that's I don't think I've ever seen clouds like that before. The pink of these, These balconies. I feel like we're in a hotel parking lot. What do you think's going on inside those windows? What's that guy doing? What's going on? What's he cooking? This is interesting. What kind of a little red car like that? Interesting. The sign Ege. That doesn't look like American English. Sign Ege to me. I don't know about anyone else Car is that It's a little like Hyundai, I maybe. What do you think? It smells like here. What's what's drifting in on the breeze from over there? I like we can see the hills in the distance. Almost. Looks like, uh uh I feel like there could be a graveyard or something up there. So interesting. What does it say over there? Safe, safe something. It's interesting. Well, I don't know if I have enough information to make a guess, but we we should do it anyways, so I like this foliage is an oak tree. Um, you know, you think about what you touch around here. What? You What would you dhere drifting in? Uh, I'm gonna say how What will I say? I think that we're maybe in time we may be in Spain. That's my That's my guess. Let's let's try it. I think we're in Catalonia. Let's make that guess we're in Portugal. There we go. Not too shabby. Good job. All right, everyone, good job with your with your geo guessing. 7. The Fictional Dream: Now we're gonna talk about an idea called The Fictional Dream, and this is a term coined by John Gardner, who was a novelist, also a writing teacher. He taught Raymond Carver, and it's a really simple idea. It's basically just the little movie that plays in our mind as we're reading. It's how we disappear into a story. It's It's what we see and experience were sitting on the couch, but we're really in Narnia, so it's It's a simple idea, but it's difficult to achieve. How do you do that? Number one, it's It's imitating the physical world. It's convincing us that this world exists. It's Ah, whether that be a sci fi world or our own world, you have to. We have to believe that this is a place. It's also a lot of what Fisher did. It's it's tricking our senses. It's it's smells and sights and sounds and tastes. It's It's that imitation of of those sense details that really engages us and makes us feel something. So the fictional dream it's it's an easy idea, very important for setting, and it's basically it enlivens the senses by tricking us into experiencing something that we are not 8. Reading - A Distant Episode By Paul Bowles: all right, and now we're gonna read another piece that deals heavily in setting, So I want you to pay attention to how that's working in the piece. It's by Paul Bowles, who was a writer as well as composer. He was married to another writer named Jane Bulls, who was really every bit his equal, and they had an amazing life together. They lived in Tangier, Morocco. He lived there from 1947 until his death in 1999. The beats would actually make pilgrimages to visit him, though he wasn't himself a beat writer. So just take a few minutes to read. This piece will come back and discuss, Think about setting and how he's using it. So what did you folks think about that piece? It really gets into the setting, right? It's maybe somewhere we haven't been before, but it takes us right there with all those details. So let's think about that a little bit. Let's think about the character and what the setting tells us about him. Do we are we told anything explicitly, Not very much, but maybe what we can think about what race this guy is, um, were not told. But he's carrying sunscreen, which means that he has fair skin. So we kind of into it. That right? He is he from around here? Hey, has a bunch of maps so he may be, doesn't know exactly where he's going. Um, what else does is he? Maybe it's just a new cities unfamiliar with. He's carrying a bunch of medicine. So, you know, maybe that means that he's a foreigner and he's worried about getting sick. So think about all those details. Those little bits of setting, they seem small. They seem unimportant, but they tell us so much. Also think about the sensory details, just like Fisher. Think about the smells. There's the ozone at first, which is kind of heady and dizzy making. There's also the orange blossoms, which are so sweet you can just really taste and smell those. There's the olive oil, the burning olive oil, which is kind of acrid and hits your nose. Uh, really hard. There's the pepper that spicy maybe burns your nose. There's also the baked excrement, which is unpleasant but almost a mixture of all of those things. It's sweet and spicy. It's not pleasant, but it's very very strong, so that's we want to do when we when we think about setting, we want to think about what those details tell us about our character and about hitting them and enlivening them for our reader. 9. Igniting The Fictional Dream: all right. I want to talk a little bit more about the fictional dream and how we really ignite that for our readers. So we've talked about the sense is a little bit. I want to talk about them a little bit more and how they exist on a continuum from near to far. So vision. That's a really distant sense you can you can see on a clear day for miles and miles. When we think about hearing, you can't hear us far as you can see, but it zef innately still a distant sense. If we think about smell, you can smell something in the next room. Think about touch. That's that's really bodily. It has to be. You have to actually physically touch something with your body to sense it and taste taste . You have to actually take something inside you. It's an internal sense. So what's the Predominate Inc feature of of your place that you've chosen? What's What's the sound? If you listen very carefully, what can just make out? What's the smell? What is the breeze carrying that that you can just barely smell and what what memories does that bring up for you? What would you maybe touch if nobody was looking? What? What's the predominant taste of a place? What's the flavor? You know? What would you say? Not every place has one, but some places do especially so. Think about all of these things. I think about the senses on a continuum and how that helps you ignite the fictional dream. 10. Writing Your Setting: all right. Now it's time to take matters into our own hands, and we're going to write our draft. So think about everything we've been talking about. Think about the Fisher. Think about the bowls. Think about your senses existing on a continuum. Think about imitating the physical world, convincing us of its existence. And remember, lower your expectations. Give yourself the freedom to write whatever you want. Write 500 words and take us somewhere you've never been as it's never been described. 11. Reading - Under The Volcano By Malcolm Lowry: I want to read one more piece about setting that really deals well with it. It's by Malcolm Lowry, who was a great writer. It's called Under the volcano, and Malcolm Lowry actually died by misadventure. He was an alcoholic. He got into a lot of adventures. He actually lived on the beach in British Columbia in a little shack, which he kept burning to the ground along with his manuscript. So under the volcano was a long time coming. And so as you read this, just think about his descriptions. Think about the writer as a camera and how he zooming in and out, really pay attention to what he's describing. So take just a couple minutes, we'll come back and discuss briefly. All right, So what did you folks think about that Really interesting use of setting, right? I think of it almost as if we're in a helicopter hovering over the land. We see the mountains, we see the volcanoes. We see all of the details. The plateau's It's almost like a map or a globe. You can see the Tropic of Cancer on there. Any zooms in slowly. You see the hotel get all the details about it almost like a guidebook. So these air really useful techniques to employ when you're dealing with setting and just keep that in mind when you're igniting the fictional dream, think about the tone and the characters, the physical description. You have a setting. 12. Revising Your Draft: All right, folks. Now we're gonna revise our draft and this is really important. It's also really difficult. So I don't blame you if you're a little upset at me. But really, when we're revising, that's when a lot of the writing happens. So we're going to be re envisioning our draft. That's what we have to dio. You're going to keep on Lee. What's essential. You really want just the meat. So it's a lot of decisions you're gonna have to make, um, these air hard. This is where you kill your darlings. This is where the writing happens a lot of the time. So cut it down by 250 words and leavin on Lee, what is essential? 13. Final Thoughts On Setting: are a great job. Everyone. You made hard decisions, but he came out with something even better. So now I want to remind you to upload your drafts. Everyone, please help each other out. Be kind to one another. And I really hope you take something away from this that you can use in some other piece of writing and build skills. I just want to thank everyone for taking this class. I had a blast. I really look forward to reading your work. And just a reminder. Lower expectations. Take back your time, own your time, make writing a habit and your own news. So thank you.