Make More of Setting: Affordances

  If there is a gun over the mantel in the first act, by the end of the play it should go off. If you put something into your fictional world—especially if you draw attention to it—you should think about its affordances, and make the most of them.

If there is a gun over the mantel in the first act, by the end of the play it should go off. If you put something into your fictional world—especially if you draw attention to it—you should think about its affordances, and make the most of them.

As a writer and an editor I often find myself staring at a scene where the character is stuck in a blank space—thinking without acting. How do we get ourselves out of these habits? How do we find more potential for action?

A lot of times, I think we’re told to go back to our plot (What is the next story event? How do I make that happen?) or character (What does the protagonist want? What will she do next to try to get it?) While these are both good options, I know that sometimes they work better in theory than in practice. Sometimes I go back to my plot and my character and still surface an hour later, not sure what to actually start writing. How to start building a scene.

In this case, I’m going to recommend going back to setting.

One of the helpful terms that I’ve stolen from a psychologist friend is the idea of affordances. An affordance is the potential for action inherent in an object. A doorknob affords turning. A glass of tea affords drinking. A setting is filled with objects, and each object has many affordances—possible actions.

Look around at the setting you have created. What is there for your character to interact with? How many different possibilities are inherent in the same object? What would it show us about your character if, instead of drinking the glass of tea, he threw it at the wall? Offered it to someone he thought needed it more than he did? Used it to tell someone’s fortune?

If you’re working in a world that has different parameters than the real world (magical realism, fantasy, etc) ask yourself if anything in your setting has different affordances.

To create action, first you have to create the potential for action. How can we get the most potential from our settings? The most interesting potential? The most telling potential? The most explosive potential? The most unique potential?

The idea reminds me a bit of the Chekovian bit of wisdom that is often repeated in theater circles: If there is a gun over the mantel in the first act, by the end of the play it should go off. If you put something into your fictional world—especially if you draw attention to it—you should think about its affordances, and make the most of them. In my favorite brand of storytelling, the gun will be used by the end of the story, but not in the way we expect.

When I go back to my wandering, floating, not-quite-doing-anything character, and sketch in a few more details of the setting, things immediately start to happen. Keeping plot and character in mind, I follow these small actions to see what they can tell me, and to see where they lead.


Amy Rose Capetta is the author of Entangled (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Kids) and its sequel Unmade (forthcoming in 2014). She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has previously worked for the Writers’ League of Texas, and served as assistant editor for the Children’s and Young Adult section of the literary journal Hunger Mountain. In addition to her novels, she has written screenplays, the most recent of which debuted at the Toronto ReelHeart International Film Festival. After calling Austin her home for several years, Amy Rose now lives in the Midwest, where she focuses on writing and editing fiction.

Areas of Specialty: Narrative work for middle grade, young adult, and adult readerships. All genres welcome. Particular areas of interest: fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, supernatural, genre-bending fiction, creative nonfiction, literary fiction, LGBTQ fiction.

Available For: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, first chapter critique and edit, synopsis review and edit, private writing coaching.

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