The Shotgun-Shack Story: Nowhere to Hide


I’ve been sitting on a topic for a while that a recent blog post on Lethal Inheritance  has spurred me to finally write.  In Tahlia’s post, “Is writing the second novel easier than the first?“, she discusses how she has started writing her second book while her first manuscript awaits publishing.  She mentions ways in which this second story line differs from the first:

“[I]t takes place almost entirely in one set of adjoining suites in a castle, whereas Lethal Inheritance’s scenery is always changing. Thirdly, it’s character, relationship and emotion driven, rather than action driven. For me, that’s a harder brief, and that’s why I’m not sure at this stage if I can make it work.”

To which I responded:

“What I’ve been working on to date falls in that [same] category; there are not dramatic changes in setting or adrenaline-rushing action as it’s very concentrated on the psychological/emotional variations in my protagonist as she questions identity and her perceptions of reality.”

I proceeded to say that, though this is the type of story I’m personally drawn to, I realize it doesn’t necessarily have the mass-market appeal that would get it snatched up for publication.  And that’s okay—I am definitely writing the story I want to write; I started rereading it from the beginning yesterday and am all the more convinced of that.

So, today I’m dedicating this post to those incredible stories out there that capture our attention without catering to the modern-day ADD bred by MTV-esque rapid editing and car chases and explosions.  I’m not saying I’m not likewise entertained by the action-packed tales, just that they are not the only ones capable of, in fact, entertaining.

I attended a writing seminar last year in which a panel of agents, publishers, and authors spoke on the craft of writing in conjunction with getting published.  Someone in the audience had asked about commercial versus literary fiction, and an author responded that “commercial” fiction is story-driven whereas “literary” fiction prioritizes language and ideas—it is read for the beauty of the words and provocation of thought.  She attested that many authors try to combine both.

This got me thinking, then, about the more character-driven stories that I enjoy.  Where films go, I noticed a trend in my collection of one-setting movies; indeed, some partake in just one room.  Think about that!  One room.  If a film or novel can captivate you all the way through by virtue of situation and dialogue without having to change settings, that is a brilliantly written manuscript, in my opinion.

Don’t believe me?  Try watching Rear Window, 12 Angry Men, Rope, or, hey, even The Breakfast Club—all of which take place in a single room (with the exception of maybe a minute or two outside)—and tell me that you aren’t entertained.  These are carried by characterization and dialogue, just like other favorites of mine:  Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset (which both admittedly change settings, but the respective cities of Vienna and Paris are just backdrops to the characters’ ongoing conversation), The Anniversary Party (an ensemble cast in a Hollywood couple’s home), and Gosford Park (in the vein of the Agatha Christie books I loved as a kid that transpire in a single setting—a mansion in And Then There Were None and a train in Murder on the Orient Express).  And it doesn’t take dramatic, in-your-face action and cutting from setting to setting to get the blood rushing, as not only evidenced by these mysteries and the two aforementioned Hitchcock films (Rear Window and Rope), but in haunting thrillers like Dead Calm and The Others as well…which coincidentally both star Nicole Kidman, the first taking place on a sailboat and the second in yet another old English mansion.

In speaking on setting, the visual examples of this most readily come to my mind through film, but the success in capturing even a viewer’s attention in this case comes down to the writing.  The writer scripts the dialogue and envisions the setting and behavior of the characters—in film, the director then works to capture this audiovisually.  Yet in a novel, it is all on the writer to convey these elements entirely in words.

Stripping away the attractive actors, elaborate sets, and soundtracks does not render mere words dull, nor is a single/minimal-setting book a bore.  If that were the case, where would that leave the classic works of authors like Austen or Bronte, whose stories don’t deviate far from the character’s homes.  Think of the chill sent down the spine by novellas like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw or Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (houses), the adrenaline and fury aboard Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (boat), or the intimate existential conversation in Salinger’s Franny & Zoe (the entire second part moves only from the bathroom to the living room) or Boethius’s 6th-century The Consolation of Philosophy (a prisoner speaks with Fortune in his cell).

What is it about the single-setting that so fascinates me?  I suppose it’s in part the appreciation I feel for the effectiveness of story-telling that doesn’t rely on bells and whistles.  And it’s the great experiment of what happens when you isolate people in a room—throw in a dash of tension, stir, and bring to a boil.  It becomes a study of humanity when characters aren’t able to escape each other or even themselves:

There is much heart, soul-seeking, and thrill to be had within four walls.  A writer can most certainly pull it off, though the impact can only be as strong as the writing itself in bringing it from the corners of a room to the corners of the mind.

How about you, readers and writers—do you gravitate toward the story-driven or character-driven?  What are some examples that successfully combine both?


About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

23 responses to “The Shotgun-Shack Story: Nowhere to Hide

  • tahliaN

    Great post and what a powerful video. Shows what you’re saying perfectly. I love the way we bounce of other people’s blog posts. As for your question – I like both, but to be good, story-driven works still need strong well rounded characters. If I was to choose between them, I’d go for character, because stories can be pretty thin without rich characters.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thank you, Tahlia! 12 Angry Men is one of my all-time favorite films; I used to show it in class during my sophomore’s Justice unit, and even my ADD teenagers were absorbed by it. That film never loses its power and is one that I could watch again and again.

      In any case, thanks for inspiring the post – I do love the idea-sharing of blog; such an awesome writer community that I’ve stumbled into online 🙂 You make a great point that strong characters are needed in either type of story, as even the action can fall flat without people with depth.

  • Milo James Fowler

    In my own writing, I find that I’m very character-driven: I want my reader(s) to invest in the characters I’ve created and hope for their success/downfall. But when I look for a new book to read, I go by the story/premise–yet whether or not it holds my attention will depend on how the characters are portrayed.

    I like your comment about the ADD/MTV attention spans of today’s readers. I was told at a writer’s conference last fall to cut back on my opening scenes’ descriptions and to instead start out with action. Too bad if I like to read books where I am immersed in another world before the explosions start. Apparently, those books don’t sell.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Isn’t that such a shame, Milo? There are definitely quality readers out there who’d appreciate your use of description, but I guess the mainstream just doesn’t have the attention span to nurture a story’s gradual build-up anymore. The thing is, while those types of novels can certainly be the more difficult ones to get into straightaway, once I get through reading the character/situation/setting description, when the action picks up, I’m completely immersed in a way that I wouldn’t be otherwise. Not to keep going back to the old classics, as there are modern writers who achieve the same, but I automatically think of Dickens in this respect. The first half of his novels are always an upward climb, but then the second half is so rich and exciting for it because, as you said, you’re invested in the characters.

  • Cities of the Mind

    First off, 12 Angry Men is one of my all-time favorite movies, for precisely the reason you listed, and Rear Window, as well.

    Second off, please keep writing the book you want to write; telling the story you want to tell may not be the fastest road to a published manuscript, but if you tell it with perfect pace and prose, it’s the truest road to a great story. In my humble opinion.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Cities of the Mind, you have exquisite taste 🙂 I’m always excited to encounter someone who appreciates those films as much as I do. I received a comment just a couple days ago on my “Speak & Spell” post that commended one of YOUR previous comments that I’d quoted, so your perspective on this is obviously heartening to your fellow aspiring writers—thank you for that encouragement to keep writing the stories we want to write; I hope you are as well. (I am enjoying your travel tales so much, by the way…)

  • Eva

    Hey again – I think that both are very important. And love reading books that combine both, as I am a strong believer in character-driven suspense. 🙂 Crafted skilfully, characters can be interesting and drawn well within a couple of sentences, and the same applies to suspense.

    Books I think managed to do the trick are Zoran Drvenkar’s “Sorry” (hopefully translated to english, soon – there is another one called “Tell me what you think”), “Amok” from Stephen King (as Bachmann pseudonyme), many Stephen King pieces in general, the first of the Stieg Larsson Trilogy (The girl with the dragon tattoo) and others I cannot think of at the moment.

    Again, lovely post – so many good thoughts you keep bringing up!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thank you again, Eva! Just finished reading Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a couple days ago, the detail/intricacy of which thoroughly made me feel like a simpleton 🙂 I haven’t seen the film, but that was definitely one of those books I could automatically “see” translating to the screen so well through the action and character description. I haven’t read the others you listed, but they are duly noted. Great point that characters can be effectively fleshed out through concise, perceptively chosen words, and I like that idea of “character-driven suspense” – a situation can become that much more thrilling when we await how a complex character will respond to it.

  • liza

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this topic, and I’ve come to the conclusion that all good stories, the ones that stick with me at least, are character-driven. Sure they have great plots, etc, but the story comes from the character’s growth as he/she is subjected to various kinds of conflicts, and I think the more high concept the work, the more fleshed out the characters need to be. How many action movie flops must there be for Hollywood to realize that great graphics, effects or plot devices are no substitution for a great story? Original Matrix (yay!) versus its sequels (yikes!). Original Clash of the Titans (yay!) versus 2010 Clash of the Titans (double yikes!). Zombieland versus Resident Evil. The Breakfast Club (I know its not a high concept movie, but it’s one of my all time favorites, and was so happy to see it mentioned here 😉 ) versus any other teen movie being churned out now.

    I think it’s those stories that lack characterization that end up feeling formulaic, and leave me less than satisfied. Honestly, I feel that all stories have a formula, so to speak. A story that is well-written/well-crafted, however, doesn’t feel that way, because the character’s experience makes it unique and engaging even if the concept/theme/plot has been used over and over, ad infinitum. I’m thinking of Katniss from Hunger Games now because the latest installment, Mockingjay will be released soon. Fantastic high-concept story because of Katniss and the other main characters. Compare that with the still decent, but not as good, Maze Runner by James Dashner. Great concept, but it left me wanting more meat in the story.

    Thanks for letting me ramble!

    • thefallenmonkey

      YES, Liza, you nail it on the head with Hollywood sequels/remakes playing up the wrong aspects the second time around. They overlook the original appeal and inanely think instead, “Huh, people seemed to like the explosions and sex and stuff the first time, so if we have twice as much this time, it’ll be twice as good!” I was just having a conversation today with a colleague in which I recommended the Tim Robbins film, The Player. In satirizing Hollywood, it at one point has a studio executive recommending that the screenwriter be cut out of the process altogether, that all they need is to open a newspaper, grab a headline, and bam! There’s your movie 😉 You raise a good point that even a plot that is arguably formulaic doesn’t seem so in the hands of a skillful writer who manages to create original, substantial characters that can carry the story in a way that doesn’t feel so been-there-done-that.

      Hey, please do ramble—I love your insights!

  • sharmon

    This is a great post and really made me think. I didn’t discover Rope till a couple of years ago, as well as 12 Angry Men–both I loved instantly, even though I’m way visual and salivate for settings. It made me think of so many movies and books I love that hardly deviate from one setting. You mentioned The Others–an instant classic in my book. Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher–chills. So many good ones. My aunt’s been telling me about Gosford Park, so I gotta get that next.
    As a writer, I have to say that the one main setting thing can be a real help. You can use all that setting-building energy on the dialogue, characters and word choice. While I do love setting-building to a point, there are days when faced w/ having to start a scene from “scratch” has had me dodging my computer. It can be intimidating, esp. if you’re not feeling particularly creative that day. Somehow just starting on solid (already built) ground can be the nudge you need to get some word count in.
    Great post!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thank you, sharmon! Ooh, you’re in for a treat with Gosford Park – really harkens back to the old-fashioned murder mystery with the ensemble cast of suspects; like playing a game of Clue 🙂 Yes, I totally agree that there are those days when it’s almost painful trying to create a setting out of the blue; in my current manuscript (my first novel-length draft), I feared I was taking the easy route by basing many settings on familiar ones, and yet the time old advice on writing is “Write what you know”…that now and then gives me a real-life foundation on which to build and embellish accordingly such that it is a world of its own, but you make a great point that even if it is an entirely fictitious setting, if it’s the same one revisited at length, you can enrich it with that same reality vs. your creativity getting spread too thin. I consistently enjoy your insights – thanks so much for always leaving me with thoughtful food for thought!

  • Ollin

    This is an excellent point to make fallenmonkey. You are right, it seems like mainstream movies are story-driven while generally the work that writers like me and you enjoy are more character and idea driven.

    I do think the best movies and stories combine them both. Maybe its a cliched response but I still think To Kill A Mockingbird is the most excellent example of a story driven/character driven/idea driven book I have read. I think Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is also a stellar example of that. A Native Son is in the similar vein–until he goes to jail. Then it becomes more about ideas.

    I think as writer’s we should try to work with both, but I don’t know–maybe it all depends on what kind of author you are, what kind of story you want to tell, and what your ideal audience would be.

    Insightful post! 🙂

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ah, that’s quite true, Ollin. To be fair to those writers whose ideas and voice best tell the story-driven story, they should be able to write the tale they’re compelled to if that’s what I’m insisting for myself. I always make snap judgments that those types of stories exist just to be money-makers, so I should give benefit of the doubt that there’s more to it than that 🙂 I LOVE To Kill a Mockingbird!!! Nothing cliche in that whatsoever. It’s a brilliant novel, and one that I’ve read many times (mainly because I had to teach it ;)) that only gets better. Raisin in the Sun is so powerful as well – great examples. I haven’t read A Native Son, so making note. Thank you as well for the insights!

  • sharmon

    Likewise, fallenmonkey! I would love to put Gosford on Netflix TODAY…but I have a stack of library books a foot high (research for my WIP–okay, Wuthering Heights is pure, unadulterated pleasure but I’ll say I’m “honing my craft” 🙂 ). I had to comment on “Write what you know.” I took that to heart when I laid aside my beloved but partially mangled historical novel ms and decided to attempt to write something much less intimidating to “cut my teeth on” and then return to the historical, hopefully w/ more…well, more. I set my new novel in current times, in a real nearby town I can visit any time I needed to verify something, chose a genre I love, an MC who is a struggling writer–all things I “know”. And guess what? It was hard. Darned hard. Phew! I’m so glad I took that advice; I have learned so much (and have much, much more to learn) but now I feel much more well equipped to go back to the historical that is the story in my heart (don’t we all have at least one?). I also discovered I don’t “know” hardly anything! I still need to do more research! But I would recommend “writing what you know” to anyone, at least the first time out of the gate.

    • thefallenmonkey

      YES, I think that’s the sort of “in-training” I’m in right now…a character that is undergoing conflicts similar to I was (though I do amplify it way beyond anything I’ve experienced) and in a similar setting. Within that framework, there is still a lot that remains to fully create, yet having the familiar 1) allows for some focus on the writing itself, honing it into something stonger, and 2) lends an authenticity that can offer added depth, so rather than an easier way out, it can result in something truer. Hats off to you attempting the historical fiction – that’s probably my favorite genre, yet the most intimidating to me to actually write. I think I’m too lazy to do all the research 🙂 There is a portion (maybe ultimately 5-10%) of my manuscript that will be historical, and I barely feel comfortable tackling that – the accuracy of the characters’ dialogue is a challenge, so I work on that part in fits and starts. In any case, you can be proud of your historical novel when you do return to it because at a lecture I attended in May with Audrey Niffenegger and Tracy Chevalier, Niffenegger admitted that she kept her latest novel in modern times (even though it has a setting that would lend so well to an earlier time, like Chevalier chose) because historical fiction doesn’t come to her naturally…I don’t think it does to anyone because it is more of an unknown- therefore a lot of extra work! But so worth it in the end, so keep with yours 🙂

  • Agatha82

    Write the book you want to read….that was one of the tips we were given in the publishing conference I attended and it’s very true. Character driven or action driven, funny, I tend to like books with a mix on both. I like James Herbert’s Once for example that happens in just two locations. Single settings can be powerful, intense with a lot of scope for character development. I LOVE dialogue and hate descriptions…maybe I should be a script writer lol

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ha, that would solve it! It’s been interesting since I’ve started rereading my story to see how much I loaded those first chapters with description…these looong paragraphs, whereas the second half is mostly dialogue – I think I’m liking that better too! I’m hacking through my own earlier descriptions now to free up the pacing a bit, and I think it was Eva that commented before that there can be effective description in a few words. So I’m bearing that in mind with even a character-driven story…it isn’t free reign to bog the reader down in superfluous detail 🙂 I love hearing everyone’s suggestions, so am making note of Once, as I haven’t read it. And, yes, I’d agree that a nice blend of both types is probably the perfect formula that keeps both the reader and the writer happy. How’s your story coming along? I need to swing by your blog and check for an update…

  • sharmon

    It’s funny you mention that part of your novel is historical because I can’t seem to get away from it, either. My WIP is contemporary but has a “mystery” from the Victorian past and, hello, history. I thought it would hardly be a few paragraphs about that era, and somehow it’s infiltrated a lot of the MS. I guess if you love history (guilty!) it just seeps in.
    I just checked out TTWife so I’m just getting acquainted with Niffenegger’s writing. How wonderful that you got to hear her lecture! I like the first chaps. and of course saw the movie. I prefer to read the book first, but couldn’t in this case.
    Thanks for the historical encouragement!

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