Capitalize on the emotional resonance of a location the way George Saunders does

It took me years to understand the importance of location and how it can make a story more powerful.

In the past, I placed my stories in living rooms. Bedrooms. Offices. The location was unimportant as I focused on getting my characters walking, talking, and bickering. Conflict, I had read, was paramount. Who cared if the curtains were red or black?

Mundane scenery was familiar to me. Although raised on a rural farm, I’ve spent most of the past twenty-seven years in home and office. I wrote what I knew. And besides, my stories were the tight, tiny equivalent of one-act plays. Spare little nuggets, no words wasted, no room for set decoration. I never wrote, “Couches Like White Elephants,” but there’s still time.

Truly, I was impatient and lazy. I didn’t know that by setting stories in locations that are fraught with meaning, you get a free shot of emotional juice. Consider these two potential first lines:

  • The man with the serious face carried the balloon through the living room.
  • The man with the serious face carried the balloon through the nursing home.

living room means little to the reader without context. You’ll need to specify before they can start to feel anything (e.g., the empty living room; the living room littered with dead cats; the living room with the black walls; etc.).

nursing home has all sorts of emotions baked into it. Just the mere mention will prepare some readers to cry because of past sad experiences there. The pump is primed!

Hence, add impact to a story by upgrading your people, places, and things. Choose them for emotion, be it tension, sadness, excitement, horror, or whatever your chosen flavor.

George Saunders has used a Theme Park in many of his stories: “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Pastoralia,” “Bounty,” and others. George could have set his workplace drama in a familiar cubicle–and sure, there’s tons of shorthand available in that milieu (reference a broken copier and many office drones will twitch with a visceral response)–but Saunders uses (and perhaps over uses) the theme park environment because of A) its uniqueness (he’s really made the theme park genre his own) and B) the emotional memories it is likely to trigger (weird place, boring childhood trips, carnival food, strange enthusiasts, and so on).

Here’s a thought on juxtaposition. My favorite works of art contain a range of emotional notes. There are chuckles found in both Hamlet and The Evil Dead 2. I like when angelic voices sing dark material. Salvador Dali’s paintings of his beloved Gala combined his usual weirdness with naked adoration. Think about your own tastes and find what mashups matter most to you. Have you seen Everything, Everywhere, All at Once? It’s loaded with emotional mashups.

In the Saunders Theme Park stories, horrible things frequently happen, and they catch the reader off-guard because the set-up is so silly. They would be less impactful if the setting was drab, the characters were severe, and then something terrible is piled on. The reader feels a greater emotional punch if you first put them in the opposite mindset. Like a boxer, practice your feint and counterpunch.

For George, the theme park is has been rich soil to mine. What unusual/uncommon/underexplored place is your equivalent of the Saunders Spot? Go write a story set there. I’d bet that you will have a better (or at least different) writing experience, and your work will have more resonance.

An Exercise

Before starting your next story, write a list of ten places where it could be set. E.g., a funeral home, a department store, an emergency room, a vet’s office, a sewage treatment plant, etc. Then, mentally play out your story idea in each location. Your family drama would be hacky at a funeral home (we already have Six Feet Under). Perhaps it would have a weird emotional resonance at a sewage treatment plant where a father and son work side-by-side? Or what about The Sopranos set in kindergarten? Yes, please.

If you try the exercise, drop me a line. I’d love to hear about it and share thoughts.


How to generate a mass of story title options quickly in Excel

Titling stories is the worst part of the storytelling process.

On a rare occasion, a title comes to me as a popcorn thought (“Pinstripe Alley,” “Bandidos”) with a whole story already contained inside. All I must do is unpack it. Those experiences are when I most believe in God and a benevolent universe.

More often, I will chase down a story and kill, skin, and cook it before I even know its name. After all the fun stuff is done and my creative juices are spent, devising a title is tedious. I want to hunt the next one, not sit and fumble my way through word combinations or hurt my brain trying to conceive of the perfect–yet unique and non-clichéd–phrase that encapsulates the story’s apparent theme. It’s drudgery! Give me my rifle and knife and let me go hunting again!

Hence, I’ve often defaulted to a character name (“Guelph,” “Rastaghosta”) or a basic story summation phrase (“Car Trouble,” “New Neighbor,” “Charlie in the Attic”) and called it done. Ineloquent, sure, but it’s better than “Story #115” (a title I have considered using in the past).

Today I stumbled upon a trick that uses Microsoft Excel to simplify the naming process. It still requires a little brain work, but if I can manage it while impatiently blood-lusting for another story, I think you can, too. Here we go.

First, open an MS Excel worksheet.

Next, fill the first column with words that relate to your story. If stuck, start with the people, places, and things of your story. The following image shows a set of top-of-head words that pertain to my latest story (which I currently call “Belinda the Magnificent”, which is, uh, kinda dumb). If you don’t even have a story yet, but want to generate a compelling title, try this: fill your column with words that share a tone, like positivity, or goodness (sunrise, grandma, kiss, etc.). You’ll see why in the next step. TIP: Make sure to leave a space after each word in your cells.

Next, fill the second column with other words that relate to your story. If stuck, list adjectives and thematic/emotional words that pertain to your story. Don’t fret about repetition–in fact, that might be great. If in the previous step you listed positive words, this time list some negatives (kill, blood, death, doom, etc.). The following image shows another set of words that pertain to my “Belinda” story:

Cool, we are halfway there. Next, copy the following formula and enter it into the first cell of row three:

I wish I could cite the website where this came from, but thanks to whomever at whatever. Here’s a screenshot of that formula being entered, as described. Yes, that’s all in the first cell, column three:

Next, select cell one, column three and drag its bottom right corner down the row. If done correctly, you’ll get something like the next image. Keep dragging that formula down the column until it starts returning blank cells.

That’s it. In my third column, I now have 273 possible titles for my “Belinda” story. Most are stinkers, but I scrolled and found some promising options. E.g., I don’t hate “Haunting Features” as a title, and it does apply to part of the story.

Another benefit of generating such a list is that while I scroll, other title possibilities pop into mind. What about “Parental Features” for my story, which is about someone seeing a parent’s resemblance in his partner but also the qualities of a good parent? Hmm. I like it. Done. On to the next hunt!

Before I go, though: As an exercise to generate a random horror story title, I followed the steps described above, but used NEGATIVE words in the first column and POSITIVE words in the second. I now have 4000 horror movie titles to pick from (a screenshot follows). Some are gawdawful, but some . . . not so bad. Would you attend a movie called “Grim Bondage”? I think you might. And couldn’t “Bad Compassion” have been a Ray Liotta movie from the early aughts?

Anyway, if you try this exercise and find it helpful, please let me know so we can share in your success. Peace ’til next time.